Why We Can’t Shake Ambergris
The odd, enduring appeal of a scarce commodity few people use and no one really needs.
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In a sparsely furnished office building in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, the record-breaking skyscraper that towers over Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Farook Kassim reaches into a desk drawer, extracts a small plastic baggie, and offers up its contents for inspection. Inside is what looks like a stone the size of a thumb, white flecked with brown and gray. Its light color denotes high quality. The fragrance from the baggie is subtle and refined: musky with hints of tobacco and the ocean.
This is ambergris, one of the world’s unlikeliest commodities. The waxy substance formed in the gut of around one in 100 sperm whales is frequently described as vomit, but is almost certainly expelled from the other end of the animal. Fresh ambergris has a strong fecal odor and is much less valuable than aged specimens. Despite its origins, ambergris, with its unique scent, fixative properties, and perceived ability to elevate other olfactory notes, has been prized by the perfume industry for hundreds of years. It has also been consumed as a delicacy and administered as medicine. At times, it has fetched prices more than twice that of gold. Today, it still changes hands for up to US $25 per gram, a price approaching that of platinum and many times that of silver and can mean a payday of thousands of dollars for a tennis ball–sized chunk.
In the mid-20th century, scientists developed a synthetic version, and today most perfumers rely on lab-produced alternatives. So how is it that ambergris remains an object of desire—for which people risk arrest, house fires, and heartbreak?
Its devotees in the fragrance world argue that the olfactory qualities of synthetic ambergris can never compare with those of its natural predecessor. Yet there is another factor in the appeal—mystery. And wherever there’s mystery around a commodity, misinformation, suspicion, and secrecy often follow.
Though ambergris has been traded since at least the Middle Ages, we still know remarkably little about the substance. Even the fact that it originates from sperm whales is a relatively recent discovery. For hundreds of years—even as beachcombers were finding ambergris washed up on shore and sailors were recovering the substance from carcasses—naturalists and physicians treated the theory that whales produce ambergris as outlandish. Ninth-century Muslim travel writers proposed that whales likely consume a substance produced elsewhere and later regurgitate it, a view that remained in circulation for several centuries.
The Hortus Sanitatis, an encyclopedia of herbal medicines published in 1491, cited theories that ambergris was tree sap, a type of sea foam, or some kind of fungus. In the 12th century, reports from China suggested ambergris was dried dragon spittle. It has at various times been proposed to be a fruit, fish liver, or a precious stone. According to a 2015 paper from the Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, “By 1667, eighteen different theories existed on this matter and various animals were considered producers of this substance—including seals, crocodiles, and even birds.”
Part of the confusion, no doubt, stems from the fact that by the time ambergris arrives on land, it can resemble any number of other substances. When fresh, it is black and viscous, but over time at sea it hardens and takes on lighter hues of brown, gray, or white. Recorded finds have ranged in size from tiny pebbles, weighing just a few grams, to boulders the size of a person. Hopeful collectors are frequently disappointed to learn they have acquired rocks, rubber, sea sponges, lumps of wax or fat, and, in some unfortunate cases, dog shit.
Even the term ambergris is the result of a misunderstanding. The word is derived from the old French term ambre gris, meaning gray amber, distinguishing the substance from amber resin—fossilized tree sap that was also used in fragrances and found on beaches. Beyond this, the two substances bear no relation. Still, the misnomer corrected an even earlier error: amber resin likely took its name from ambar, the Arabic word for ambergris.
Arab society, which embraced ambergris as a medicine at least as early as the ninth century, and later as a perfume ingredient, introduced the substance to the West; ambergris became widespread in both cultures throughout the Middle Ages. During the Black Death, the bubonic plague pandemic that swept across Europe in the mid-14th century, wealthy citizens hung spherical containers known as pomanders filled with ambergris and other fragrant materials from their necks or belts in the misguided belief that the plague was caused by bad odors. Three hundred years later, King Charles II of Britain is said to have enjoyed eating ambergris with eggs. And ambergris is listed as an ingredient in the world’s earliest known recipe for ice cream and in a 17th-century recipe for punch. Even today, visitors to the kinds of cocktail bars found hidden behind bookcases will occasionally be served expensive ambergris-laced cocktails.
Cristina Brito, a historian and biologist based at NOVA University of Lisbon, Portugal, has studied the commercial history of ambergris. She suggests that, for centuries, mystery and uncertain provenance were driving factors in demand. “It was a very exotic substance,” she says. “So the fact that people didn’t know where it came from, and there were a lot of stories about it, increased its value.”
The mystery around this whale-derived flotsam has even shaped empires: exaggerated reports of ambergris have been cited as a factor in Britain’s decision to colonize Bermuda, for example.
Ambergris has also featured in great works of literature, including Moby Dick. Herman Melville devoted a whole chapter to it. “Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!” he wrote.
The idea that ambergris is the product of illness or injury endures today, but is far from proven. In 2006, the British marine biologist Robert Clarke, who had already studied ambergris for more than 50 years, published a detailed theory of how it forms. In The Origin of Ambergris, he proposed that when squid beaks become lodged in a whale’s intestines, fecal matter accumulates around the blockage until “eventually the rectum stretches until it breaks, causing the whale’s death, and the ambergris is released into the sea.” Clarke died in 2011, but his theory is still the most widely accepted, and the presence of squid beaks is considered a decent indicator of genuine ambergris.
Michael Stoddart, former chief scientist at the Australian Antarctic Program, says that, despite the work of a few isolated ambergris researchers such as Clarke, there are large gaps in our scientific knowledge, and he sees little appetite within the scientific community for investigating the phenomenon. “Whale biologists would regard it as a kind of an oddity, something that’s rather nice to talk about now and again, but not really worthy of great study,” he says. Several sperm whale researchers approached for this article declare little knowledge of ambergris. “I have collected sperm whale feces for over a decade and never come across it,” says one. “I don’t know anyone who is an active researcher on ambergris,” says another. “If you read what has been written in books and papers about it, you will know more than I do.”
Chemists, rather than biologists, have had the most success in studying ambergris. In 1820, researchers in France discovered the active compound and named it ambrein, paving the way for development of synthetic ambergris some 130 years later.
In 2017, Professor Steven Rowland of the University of Plymouth in England proposed a method for the verification of ambergris through chemical analysis. Nearly two years later, Rowland’s analysis of 43 ambergris samples from across the globe revealed some were up to 1,000 years old. In a paper declaring his findings, Rowland noted that ambergris “was once a global economic commodity,” but the arrival of synthetic analogs means it “is now largely a rare biological and chemical curiosity.”
Kassim, for whom ambergris remains an attractive business opportunity, tells a different story. “It’s difficult to source, easy to sell,” he says. Opportunities may be rare, but they offer big rewards: “It’s not a normal trade where you make a small margin.”
The Sri Lankan businessman, who has lived in the United Arab Emirates for the past 45 years, typically trades in silver and gold. Ambergris is a sideline, albeit a lucrative and highly enjoyable one. He has visited more than 100 countries over the years, many of them in pursuit of ambergris. Sometimes, he places advertisements in local papers seeking suppliers when he’s traveling. “I’ve not been that successful,” he laughs. On occasion, he has heard reports of a large ambergris find and jumped on a plane to try and negotiate a deal.
Those reports can come from almost anywhere with a coastline. Ambergris, unlike other valuable commodities, cannot be cultivated or mined. Instead, it washes up on beaches wherever sperm whales exist, and they’re clustered throughout the world’s oceans.
Kassim has a network of semi-regular suppliers in Sri Lanka, where ambergris is typically discovered by fishermen, but he also hears reports of ambergris discoveries from Mozambique, South Africa, Somalia, Yemen (where a group of fishermen recently recovered $1.5-million worth of ambergris from a carcass), the Bahamas, and New Zealand. His buyers are located in France, where ambergris remains highly valued by some prestige perfumers; in the Middle East, where it is believed to possess aphrodisiac properties (a use supported by one study on sexual behavior in rats); and on the Indian subcontinent, where it is an ingredient in Ayurvedic medicine.
“Because it is a material which can only be found as a stroke of luck, it means the market price can fluctuate accordingly,” says Roja Dove, a master perfumer from the United Kingdom, who hints that ambergris scarcity adds to its appeal. “If you want to use this material in your creations, then you are going to have to pay for that privilege.”
The knowledge that many customers remain prepared to pay exorbitant prices inspires legions of amateur and professional ambergris hunters. Some of them train dogs to help, just as 10th-century Middle Eastern camel herders once taught their animals to sniff out ambergris and kneel when they found it. There are dedicated Facebook groups populated by hopeful beachcombers, posting photographs of their finds and seeking valuations. These aspiring ambergris hunters are, almost without exception, mistaken.
In 2013, Ken Wilman was walking his dog Madge when he found a strange rock on Morecambe Beach in England. Experts indicated it could be worth up to roughly US $140,000. Wilman began planning holidays to Disneyland and Machu Picchu. He dreamed of buying a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Then he had the find tested. It was solidified palm oil, a substance commonly mistaken for ambergris when it washes up on beaches after being disposed of by ships at sea. Wilman’s theoretical fortune vanished. Plus, he’d suffered another tragedy: Madge had fallen ill and had to be put down. She’d been poisoned, presumably by the palm oil, which is toxic to dogs.
Occasionally, the risks of ambergris hunting are even more extreme. In December 2020, British woman Jodie Crews posted photos online of a mysterious object she’d found at a beach. One helpful respondent suggested poking the object with a hot pin to see if it smoked, a common (if unreliable) test for ambergris. Crews did, and the object exploded into flames, setting fire to her kitchen. “It just turned into a fireball,” she says. A firefighter later suggested the object was a grenade from the Second World War.
On the other side of the equation, Kassim says the challenges involved in sourcing and identifying ambergris mean the market is largely controlled by a handful of veteran traders. Inexperienced buyers risk parting with large sums of money for worthless beach detritus. “You can easily get cheated,” Kassim warns. “A new person tries [buying and selling ambergris], you can burn your fingers.” So it has always been; reports from the 16th century suggest ambergris imports to Europe from Asia were often fakes made from beeswax, tree resin, or aloe wood shavings.
While Kassim is happy to discuss his business, many successful ambergris hunters and traders take great pains to maintain secrecy about their activities. Christopher Kemp, a biologist and science writer, spent years researching and hunting for ambergris to write Floating Gold, a history of ambergris. He recalls visiting Stewart Island in New Zealand, where sperm whales are common in deep offshore waters. Some of Stewart Island’s 400 residents enjoy considerable success as ambergris hunters. “Anytime that I tried to engage people with conversations about ambergris, it was like I had farted audibly,” he laughs. “It just totally, totally changed the atmosphere.”
When Kemp’s book was published in 2012, he received hate mail from those who said he was no longer welcome on the island. “I definitely had upset some people by talking about it openly and by lifting the veil and talking about how much ambergris was worth and where you might find it,” says Kemp. “Because in places like that, it really represents an important stream of revenue to people. And so they don’t want outsiders coming to look for it.”
Kemp discovered cases in which the ambergris trade has sparked violent rivalries. In August 2004, ambergris hunter Adrienne Beuse told the New Zealand Herald she’d been threatened by collectors who wanted sole domain over a beach. Days later, the same newspaper reported a court case in which a man alleged he’d been intentionally run over by his former partner in an ambergris-collecting business.
For some ambergris traders, secrecy is necessary not only to protect business interests, but because their trades are illegal. In the United States, where sperm whales are considered endangered, ambergris trade is prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Australia also bans commercial trade in the substance. In India, ambergris is defined as the property of the central government and unauthorized sale is illegal. (In 2018, three hooded men were paraded at a Mumbai police press conference after they were caught with suspected ambergris and pangolin scales.)
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which governs the global market for plant and animal products, judges “naturally excreted” ambergris to be outside its remit. Accordingly, it can be bought and sold in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, and throughout the European Union.
Yet, even in the United States, where the trade is illegal, the law is rarely enforced. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries department says it received nine reports or complaints relating to ambergris in the past 10 years, none of which resulted in prosecutions. Ambergris and ambergris products (or at least products claiming to be) are listed by several US-based sellers on eBay and Etsy.
One Florida-based trader posts regularly in a Facebook group where ambergris deals are arranged. “Do you know anybody that wants to sell ambergris?” he asks, when reached by phone. At first, he’s happy to talk. His father and grandfather were both ambergris traders, he says, based in Yemen, where they also supplied the perfume trade with civet, a glandular secretion from the animal of the same name. But when asked about ambergris laws in the United States, he stops talking. “I’m sorry, I’ve got a call coming in,” he says abruptly. The line goes dead.
When Tony Wells started an ambergris business in the United Kingdom, after negotiating a sale on behalf of a friend in the Bahamas, he found that knowing who to trust among the potential buyers advertising online was a challenge. “It was so difficult and murky,” he says. Wells saw a gap in the market for a firm that could scientifically verify ambergris finds, arrange deals on behalf of sellers, and create a traceable supply chain to improve confidence among buyers. In 2016, he founded Ambergris Connect, registering the company with the International Fragrance Association UK and forging connections with a university to secure reputable verification of ambergris finds. “We want to provide a bit more transparency,” says Wells.
Though the process has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wells previously sent samples with the most potential value to Rowland at the University of Plymouth. The scientist verifies ambergris using a technique known as capillary gas chromatography–mass spectrometry and then Ambergris Connect issues authenticity reports to buyers. In exchange, Ambergris Connect grants Rowland access to materials he needs for his research.
Wells hopes his verification process, which includes building personal relationships with suppliers and keeping a paper trail allowing buyers to trace the provenance of their purchases, will help build confidence in a supply chain that often carries a clandestine air. “At the moment, it’s that kind of cloak-and-dagger sort of market,” he says. “It feels like it’s underground when it doesn’t really need to be.” But while he wants to remove some of the risk and opacity from the ambergris business, Wells also knows that, from a commercial perspective, an element of uncertainty and intrigue is important to the ambergris story. “It is shrouded in mystery,” he says. “I don’t think that should be taken away.”
How long can the mystery of a storied substance endure under the scrutiny of modern science, though? Just last year, Ruairidh Macleod, who at the time was a research assistant at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, used DNA analysis to prove scientifically for the first time that ambergris is produced by sperm whales. He hopes to continue studying ambergris to unlock further secrets about ocean ecosystems, using the substance as a DNA archive that could shed light on whale ecology, population structure, and evolution.
As Brito, the historian, suggests, the challenge for anyone studying ambergris now is that samples and data points are hard to come by. Clarke, the biologist who came up with the theory of ambergris formation, carried out much of his research during the final decades of the whaling industry, studying samples recovered from carcasses. Modern researchers must rely instead on small samples one step removed from the whale. Therefore, it’s possible that many of Clarke’s theories will never be bettered. “I don’t think that we’ll have the chance to do that kind of work ever again,” Brito says.
Though scientists cracked the chemical secrets of ambergris long ago, intrigue and the cachet of rarity are difficult to re-create in a lab. Still, an industry-wide move away from animal products and demand for more predictable supply have seen most perfumers shift to Ambrox, Ambrofix, or other synthetics that promise the olfactory properties without the reputational risk related to using animal products for commercial purposes.
Mandy Aftel, a US-based natural perfumer who runs a museum called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents and has authored five books about perfumes and fragrances, is among those who remain loyal to the natural ingredient: “Because the raw materials are absolutely magical.” She disputes whether synthetic ambergris can ever be a satisfactory substitute. “It’s hard to really compare them,” she says. “Ambergris is like a diamond, it’s not turquoise or a piece of coral. Its aroma affects everything else and that’s why people have pursued it for hundreds of years.” Like magic, the allure of ambergris lies in what cannot be explained.