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What is Ambergris?

First and foremost, it is important to disclose the most intriguing aspect of Ambergris; Despite being recognised as extremely rare and valuable throughout history (ambergris was known and considered as an imperial trade article in Africa as early as 1000BC). No one to this day has ever seen this curious substance physically depart the sperm whale. There has been endless debate as to whether it leaves as ‘vomit’ or as faecal matter! Many research papers have alluded to the fact this is faecal and not vomit; this has (in recent years) been scientifically verified.

The sperm whale can consume up to a ton of fish and squid per day (mainly giant squid). Giant squid have sharp, parrot like beaks which can’t always be digested and can irritate the whale’s intestines.

Ambergris starts to form when the whale produces a fatty, cholesterol-rich substance as a defence, which coats and surrounds the beaks so that they are able to pass through the whale’s four stomachs without causing too much damage to the intestine walls. This process is similar to a grain of sand in an oyster forming a pearl! The waxy piece (also known as a ‘COPROLITH’) grows over time and is eventually expelled into the sea.

Ambergris is found at sea or on coastal shorelines all over the world. It can be 100kg + in weight and can be any shape, although it is more common to find egg shaped pieces which average between 100g and 1kg.

The history of Ambergris

Since ancient times, ambergris has been used as an ingredient in medicines and perfumes. There are numerous historical accounts dating back to the 15th century, reporting of European sailors finding ambergris out at sea. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were no laws dictating who should own the ambergris found on beaches, and many pieces were sold or traded (legally or illegally) into Europe from overseas. At this time however, it is important to mention that this elusive product was generally obtained in relatively small quantities.

Finding ambergris on beaches is relatively rare, but when it does happen (or allegedly happens) it is usually newsworthy. When ambergris is found today it usually gives rise to online articles with headlines such as ‘WHALE VOMIT FOUND’ or ‘VALUABLE RARE SUBSTANCE DISCOVERED ON BEACH’ or even ‘FLOATING GOLD FOUND’. These headlines reflect an awareness that has always existed regarding the value of ambergris, and the interest that it can generate despite a significant lack of knowledge present within the general public. This misrepresentation in the media can mislead people when it comes to what ambergris can look like and how much it can sell for.

By the 16th century the contributions from Portuguese travellers and explorers started to become known in Europe (Costa, 2009), and ambergris was recognised as one of the most exotic novelties found in the Atlantic and the New World. The economic value of this natural product, as well as the lack of knowledge surrounding its origin, gave rise to fanciful explanations as to where ambergris came from (some of which prevailed for some time in historic explanations).

Although some writers believed ambergris came from whales, several others (e.g. Anonymous, 1842) attested that amber was produced at the bottom of the sea and rejected the ‘erroneous’ view that it came from whales:

Orta, G. (1987) [1563] – “Some have said it is whale sperm, and others say it is dung of a sea animal or it is sea foam, others have said a fountain discharged it from the bottom of the sea, and this one seemed better and closer to the truth”. Orta,(1987) quotes that “Avicena and Serapiam say it is generated in the sea (...) and when the sea is tempestuous it throws rocks out of itself and with them it tosses the amber, and this opinion is also according to the truth (….)”

Image credit BMMRO

By 1667, eighteen different theories existed on this matter, and various animals were considered producers of this substance – including seals, crocodiles and even birds. There were also several theories about the possibility of a vegetable origin (a detailed revision of the several possible origins of ambergris).

However, in the middle of the scientific revolution of the 19th century (Darwin, Pasteur et al) speculation on the origin and formation of ambergris was reaching its peak (Clarke, 2006; Read, 2013). Later, in the middle 20th century, ambergris was referred to as a “consequence of a disease that originated in the large intestine and was expelled once in a while in the animal’s stool” (Cruz).

How is Ambergris used

Ambergris is mostly recognised for the renowned and unique qualities it can contribute when used in the production of perfume and fragrance (much like musk). It is collected at sea and on beaches and originates from the Sperm Whale; a consequence of the digestive formation created by the whale’s intestines to protect its digestive tract from the sharp, indigestible squid beaks that it consumes on a daily basis. Ambergris itself is legal for import, export and trade in most countries.

Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt ambergris is used for scenting and flavouring cigarettes. In recent history – the Tobacco Industry was the largest consumer of Ambergris, and it is still used in high end pipe tobacco and natural cigarette tobaccos.

The ancient Chinese called the substance "Dragon's Spittle Fragrance" or Lóng Xián Xiang. It is highly valued for both its fragrance, as well as its medical value.

During the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris mixed with herbs and spices (called a ‘Pomander’) could help prevent them from getting the plague. This was because the fragrance covered the smell of the air, which was believed to be responsible for the outbreak.

Ambergris is used prolifically in the Gulf , primarily as incense, as Attar, and also for its use as a sexual performance enhancer.

The Japanese make copious use of ambergris in their highly refined art of Kodo and diversified cultural practice of incense making, particularly in high-end Agarwood-based Senkoh and Nerikoh styles of incense use. It is also valued for its medicinal properties in Japan

It was the Japanese who first identified the origin of ambergris to be specifically from Sperm Whales. Prior to their discovery, it was hypothesized that it was made from bees living near the ocean, or possibly from fossilized tree resin, as it has a semblance to Fossilized Amber (hence the name, Amber Gris – French for Grey Amber).

This substance has also been used historically as a flavouring for food and is considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures. During the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.

To enquire about buying ambergris tincture please click here.

Additional resources

Cameron Beccario has created a visualization of global weather conditions.

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This live visualisation collect real-time data and processes it to show as a globe of the earth. The map shows global weather conditions. Ocean surface currents and temperatures.

Visit our ambergris facebook group where you will find posts that can assist with identification.

Also check our identificaton page, there are a number of teast and image galleries that will help you identify your find.