Ambergris — How Rare Whale Vomit Ended Up In Your Perfume

Published February 1, 2018
Updated June 7, 2021

Throughout history, perfumeries have used ambergris as a binding agent. But where exactly does the mysterious ingredient come from?

Sperm Whales

Wikimedia CommonsSperm whales, from which ambergris comes from.

If you’ve ever read the label on a bottle of expensive perfume, you’ve probably seen some interesting terms – exotic flowers, rare woods, citrus fruits or something called ‘ambergris.’

The name brings to mind something beautiful and soft. Perhaps it’s one of those flowers, or woods, or a type of oil or root.

Alas, ladies and gentlemen, it is not. Though the name inspires luxury, ambergris is far from delightful.

It is, in fact, whale bile.

Long before the ambergris reaches tiny, hundred-dollar bottles of Chanel No. 5 (a noted ambergris user), it can be found in its pure form: a waxy substance latched onto the intestinal walls of sperm whales. The formation of ambergris is exclusive to sperm whales, though scientists don’t quite know why. The most common belief is that ambergris is used to encase irritating objects, such as squid beaks, and make them easier to digest.

Though it is generally believed to be whale vomit, it is also known to be expelled out the other end of a whale as well. It is estimated that only one percent of sperm whales produce viable ambergris.

Ambergris In A Bowl

Wikimedia CommonsAmbergris broken down.

Once whale vomit is expelled, the waxy ambergris, dullish grey or black in color, bobs through the water, hardening over time. Eventually, it floats to the surface, and later to shore, often found years after exiting its marine host. In its purest form, ambergris usually has a marine fecal scent, though, over time as t hardens, it takes on a sweeter, earthier scent.

It is notoriously difficult to find, as it often resembles rocks on the shore, and can be almost impossible to locate while floating through the sea. Due to its rarity, the selling price for ambergris can reach thousands of dollars for a single ounce. In fact, in 2016, a British couple’s discovered hunk of ambergris was valued at $70,000.

Even before modern times, it was used as a fragrance by the ancient Egyptians as incense and by medieval Europeans as a way to cover the smell of death during the Black Plague.

Eventually, the finest of Europes’ perfumeries discovered another use for the whale waste as a binding agent in perfumes. The presence of ambergris in a perfume helped the fragrances linger on the skin, and intensify the scent of the perfume’s intended notes. Before long, the wealthiest Europeans were dying to get their hands on ambergris perfume.

Ironically, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick pointed out in the story that “fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.”

Ambergris Boulders On Display

Wikimedia CommonsBoulders of ambergris.

Regale themselves they did. And, as demand grew, so did the controversy. The whaling industry, prosperous in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought in nearly 5,000 sperm whales per year and the population had begun to decline rapidly. Though it is not harvested from the whales themselves and is merely a byproduct, those opposed to the whaling industry cracked down on ambergris trading, insisting that it contributed to the mass slaughter of sperm whales.

The controversy eventually resulted in the sale of whale waste being outlawed in Australia and the United States, as part of the Endangered Species Act. Most perfumeries switched to synthetic ambergris, which is just as effective, and encouraged for wide use. However, in places where the perfume industry thrives, like the United Kingdom and France, the trade remains legal.

So the next time you spritz on some high-end perfume like Chanel or Givenchy, just remember that that sweet, earthy smell originated in the “inglorious bowels” of the mighty sperm whale.

After learning about why whale vomit is precious because of ambergris, read some more crazy whale stories, like the fisherman who rescued and was then killed by a whale and the pack of orca’s on a killing spree in California.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.