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Tuesday, 27 December 2011


Ambergris as a perfume ingredient has a lasting fascination and is widely misunderstood - here I’ve described some of it’s story.

I don’t generally use real animal ingredients in my work - I use synthetic substitutes - however some ingredients have a special magic regardless of whether they can be used, or afforded.

A piece of top-quality ambergris
note the broken surface shows the pale grey interior 

One of the ingredients to attain legendary status is ambergris – not least because it was in use in perfumery for centuries before its origin was known – and it is a strange story. 

Ambergris, for those who don’t already know, is a product of the sperm whale. This naturally leads many people to assume that is was one of the products of the 19th century whaling industry and all the cruelty associated with that, but that would be misleading.

The process isn’t well understood, but we do know that ambergris is produced in the intestine of the whale, probably as a protective mechanism against the cuttlebones that are an inevitable consequence of its main diet, which is cuttlefish. At any rate the whale periodically ejects this stuff out in to the ocean, where its oily nature means that it floats.  There is debate about which end of the animal it comes out . . . I’m afraid the best evidence is it’s usually excreted, which might just put you off using it, even if you could afford it.  It is thought that only about 1% of sperm whales produce ambergris, so you can see why it is rare.

At this stage it isn’t much use to perfumers though – only after it has been floating about on the surface of the ocean and dried out on a beach somewhere for some considerable time does it metamorphose into the substance that, even now, commands enormous prices – it is normally collected from beaches where it washes up only after years of the action of salt, sun and sea have done their work. The hard grey-ish greasy lumps (the name comes from amber and gris: grey amber) still don’t always smell very nice prior to dilution, but then nor do quite a few other perfume ingredients, especially the animal ones.

Now that you know this story you can see that it would be quite pointless to kill sperm whales and attempt to collect the stuff from their remains – quite apart from the international whaling ban – the stuff would be nearly worthless even if you lucked out and killed the 1 in a 100 that had some inside it in the first place.

I therefore see no moral problem at all with using it – I do have an economic one sadly but also a consistency problem: each piece smells different so it’s very hard to achieve a consistent effect using natural ambergris.  Luckily there are some excellent synthetic substitutes, which work well, particularly if used in combination.

Among the synthetic alternatives is ambroxan - chemically identical with the key ingredient in natural ambergris - and that is something I use regularly.

For those with a particular desire for the ‘real thing’ I’m happy to use real natural ambergris in my bespoke work and I can make a special edition of any of my regular fragrances using it.  I get my ambergris from specialist beach collectors, mainly in New Zealand and make it into a tincture in ethanol myself.

The process of making the tincture is straightforward: it is made by grinding down the ambergris,  carefully weighing the material and mixing with sufficient alcohol to make the desired strength of tincture (1-3% is the usual level).  Then with the aid of an automatic stirrer or shaker it needs agitating constantly for a week or so at roughly 20-25 degrees centigrade. I then mature mine at about 28-30 degrees for 6 months or more with daily agitation by hand. The longer you keep it the better it will become: patience is vital with ambergris.
A small amount of ambergris in the latter stages of tincturing

Here you can see a tincture in progress, before use it will be filtered to remove all the sediment and a clear, yellowy liquid will result.  It has a surprisingly mild odour that nevertheless has a remarkable effect on the other ingredients of the fragrance.