If you are a lover of perfumes, you have many joys, one of them is getting to explain the mystical substance known as Ambergris to the unsuspecting. Aged ambergris (literally grey amber) has an earthy mildly marine sweetness. Think of warm, sea-salted skin after a day of sailing.
The Scented History of the Plague Series:
Aged ambergris (literally grey amber) has an earthy mildly marine sweetness. Think of warm, sea-salted skin after a day of sailing. This divine aroma is the result of the earthly process of photo-oxidizing triterpene alcohol ambrein, epicoprostanol, and coprostanol. What has made it a darling of the perfume world for centuries, however, is its ability to give body to an anaemic scent and supernatural staying power as a fixative. Ambergris lasts! There are perfume boxes that stored ambergris 200 years ago that still hold its scent. Empress Josephine loved ambergris so much she had it embedded in the walls of her private drawing-room. Even though the ambergris was removed a century ago, its aroma still lingers.
It’s such a strange set of events needed for this substance to find its way to a perfume bottle, if you think about it too hard your eyes will cross. How did ambergris come to be one of the most coveted products in perfumery and it’s most pricey? Why was it the plague doctor’s best friend? Well, our story begins with a tummy ache.
A Sperm Whale’s tummy ache to be precise. See, occasionally indigestible matter gets into the Sperm Whale’s digestive tract and causes irritation. This matter may be stones, exoskeletons of crustaceans, or the beak of its favourite foe, the Giant Squid.
To protect the body and help facilitate the item’s removal, bile ducts secret ambergris. The soft fatty substance coats the object to help it…move along shall we say.
That’s right gentle readers while ambergris is oft-described as being naturally expelled via vomiting, or even the blowhole, it is mostly defecated. Yes, the most expensive ingredient in scent for over 1000 years is whale poop, but that’s not the end of the story
We may never have known the joy that is ambergris if it didn’t float. The fresh, black, tar-like ambergris bobs to the surface and is characterized by the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals as, “having a strong marine faecal odour”. It might be more accurate to say that it smells like the Bog of Internal Stench, but few people will ever get to smell the fresh stuff. Ambergris spends years adrift at sea. White ambergris (the most valuable kind) has been out on the waves for 20 to 30 years. If it doesn’t get eaten, broken to bits by sea currents, or get stuck in a trash gyre, it will slowly oxidize into a hard greyish-white substance with a milder fragrance.
If all of this happens, and the ambergris can find a beach, and a person just so happens to be walking by, and that person identifies it as costly sea treasure, then we get to enjoy ambergris. I’m not a statistician, but the odds of that happening seem slim.
Pomum Ambrae (Apple of Amber)
The sort of folks that read blogs about smelly death rituals usually know a thing or two about the bubonic plague and the plague doctor, but just in case, a few notes.
Firstly the plague doctor isn’t the angel you think he was, but more on that here. Secondly, when modern people think of the plague doctor, we think of quacks in bird masks. Miasma Theory, the belief that illness came from poisoned or corrupted air, is laughable to people that grew up with Germ Theory; but the plague doctor was the rockstar of the age. Before Dr Birdface, there were two schools of thought on the origin of illness in Medieval Europe: 1. The wrath of a vengeful God in retribution for sin, 2. An imbalance of the four humours of the body.
In times of plague, however, theologians pondered how God could punish the innocent together with the wicked. Doctor’s began to question the wisdom of Galen. If an illness is an imbalance of internal fluids, why are all the people getting sick at once? Miasma Theory brought the idea of contagion to the discussion of disease, which meant there was an earthly cause, not a divine one. Granted they thought it might be caused by witches or Jews poisoning wells, but never mind. It was a worldly cause and would, therefore, have an earthly cure.
The reasoning was that both the dead and the infected with broken gangrenous or septic buboes smelled terrible and the uninfected didn’t smell that way, so the corruption must pass via bad smells. If bad smells lead to the plague, then good ones (counter-corruptives) must cure it, or at least, keep it away. Many perfumed materials were used to ward off the plague (camphor, lemon, tansy, mint, jasmine, rose, to name a few) but they needed constant replacement.
Ambergris’ use as a counter-corruptive goes back to the Plague of Athens in 430 BCE. Because of its rarity and long-lasting, strong scent, ambergris was always the reserve of the most wealthy. Balls of ambergris called Pomum Ambrae were wrapped in silk and carried by noblewomen. In the 14th century, these Amber Apples began being stored in ornate orbs, often sectioned to house different rare materials. It is from this opulent counter-corruptive that the pomme d’ambre or pomander (oranges studded with cloves) get their name, as they were a later middle-class dupe of their royal counterpart.
Veils and cloaks were waxed with the stuff. The best plague doctors stuffed their masks with it and often demanded ambergris as payment from the towns they served as it was (and still is) more valuable than gold.
The folks that rubbed the waxy substance on their body and clothes might have done themselves some unintended good. Besides smelling fabulous, the film that the Unguent of Ambergris formed on the skin along with the intense fragrance may have deterred fleas and ticks temporarily biting and therefore, spreading the contagion.
One had to exercise caution when using the Amber Apple, though. There are reports of ambergris being mixed with camphor for plague doctor’s masks and causing fainting or severe headaches. The great plague doctor, Peter Damouzy, warned against overuse of the stuff saying it would “congeal semen and grey hair”. Damouzy was also not a fan of its price tag either. He felt it was too decedent to be a cure for the plague. He believed that though the illness was an earthbound affliction, the treatment could only come from humble things, thereby proving the meekness and humility of humanity before God.
It seems that the nobility said, “Ya, meekness thanks, Dr Birdface…I mean Damouzy” and went right on using it. In the end, it was its association with the rich, the rare, and the powerful that kept ambergris relevant after the rise of modern medicine, as it became the ultimate decadent luxury.
Fudgie the Whale Poop
With the tapering off of significant epidemics of plague and the rise of modern-ish medicine, Ambergris could have gone the route of the eye of newt and toe of frog, if not for a rebranding that turned the counter-corruptive into a sexy luxury good. Both Marie Antoinette and Cassanova consumed Ambergris regularly as an aphrodisiac treat with that new exotic delicacy, chocolate. Cassanova liked to share a simple ambergris and chocolate mousse with a lady friend before bed. At the same time, Queen Marie drank it with hot chocolate also flavoured with chilli, coffee, rose petals, deer musk, and occasionally gold flakes. I wouldn’t recommend either preparation. It is a testament to how many Sperm Whales were in the world in the 17th century that Charles II’s favourite breakfast was Ambergris and eggs on toast.
For those that were not gold eating nobility, ambergris in the 17th century became a rare and beautiful perfume material, untethered by medical quackery or religious modesty, and a symbol of rare luxury. A status it still maintains today. Sadly, due to the ferocity of the whaling industry in the latter half of the 19th century (partially spurred on by the demand for ambergris), the Sperm Whale’s numbers have gone down dramatically. So the likelihood of stumbling on a few kilos of ambergris at your next beach picnic is unlikely.
I Must Have This!
Suppose you are a reader from the US. In that case, you will likely never have the chance to sample perfume with this powerful animalic ingredient as the law prohibits the import of ambergris. However, there are a few exceptions for ethically harvested. Even if ambergris is available, be sure only to use products that are ethically sourced and state that they are from beach-cast or beach harvested ambergris, which ensures that whales were not harmed in the collection. For vegans or those that would prefer not to wear endangered whale dung, there is a synthetic replacement called Ambroxan.
If you are interested in buying ambergris, Ambergris.co.nz is a reliable, ethical source, though you will have to check to make sure it can be shipped to your country. [Update: Ambergris New Zealand has closed their ambergris market until further notice. However, the site is still valuable for information and resources on ambergris].
For an entertaining read on ambergris check out Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp.
For a deeper cut (in German) John M. Riddle, “Pomum ambrae: Amber and Ambergris in Plague Remedies,” Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften 48, No. 2 (June 1964), which is on JSTOR.
Some of D/S favorites that contain natural ethically sourced Ambergris or Ambroxan are:
- Disco Nap by Smell Bent a warm, relaxing, clean musk.
- Orcas by Ayala Moriel Ocras is a 2012 Indie Fifi Award Nominated scent that calls to mind the Pacific Northwest. Rich woods, verdant green notes, and sea splashed skin.
- Geisha Noire by Aroma M A surprisingly sweet spiced musk.
- Cafe Cacao by En Voyage Based on Marie’s after dinner drink, Cafe Cacao follows the recipe with notes of Ambergris, musk, rose, dark chocolate and coffee. As a drink, it sounds vile, but as a perfume it is divine.
- Ballena de la Pampa by Fueguia 1833 hay, musk, and Ambergris form a unique and alluring unisex scent.
- Parfum Prive Solid by Aftelier Parfum Prive is a heady tropical scent that screams luxury. Not only does it contain Ambergris but also the incredibly expensive notes of osmanthus, ambrette seed, and orange flower absolute. It may be more costly, but this sold is filled with the best the world has to offer. You are buying the ingredients and skill, not the bottle or hype.
- O Hira by Stéphane Humbert Lucas 777 O Hira is what happens when a perfume designer has a singular obsession to create the best amber perfume in the world? O Hira showcases ambergris’ ability to add depth, sillage, and longevity to a fragrance. While most folks won’t want to throw down over
$700 for 50ml(you can now get 50ml for $400ish so savings I guess), you can also get a sample on Lucky Scent for about $8.
Read the next article in The Scented History of the Plague Series:
Had to read your bibliography out loud to my reference librarian husband. I’m enjoying your blog immensely. Entertaining and erudite.
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