Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gold, Ambergris and all the Jewels of Araby!

I was talking with friends the other day about perfumes, the real ones, not the cheap, watered-down fragrances the stores are offering today. We talked about essential oils, and other unusual and not-often-used ingredients (by today's standards), including musks, frankincense, and ambergris. A quote in Master and Commander refers to prize ships holding, "Gold and ambergris and all the jewels of Araby!" Well we all can imagine a poor sailor getting his share of the prize money from gold, or from a treasure trove of emeralds, rubies and sapphire gems, but ambergris? Ambergris? What is that?!
Well, interestingly enough,  is regurgitated material from sperm whales! Ehwwww, you say!
So I spent a bit of time looking into this, and here goes: It is a solid, dull grey, waxy and flammable substance produced in the digestive system of the whales. When freshly produced it has a marine, fecal odor, but when it has a chance to age, and cure by the sun and the salt of the ocean, it has a sweet, earthy scent, likened to rubbing alcohol without the astringency, and so it became a fixative for perfumes.
Once the whale has rid itself of the ambergris, it floats on the sea, or can be found in the sand at the shoreline. It can be found in lumps from a half ounce in size to incredibly, 100 pounds! One chuck found in the Dutch East Indies weighed over 1,000 lbs!  they say that whales develops this as a way to cover pieces of sharp and harmful objects that they ingest, so that pieces like bone, shell, tusks, etc don't tear their insides as they are expelled.
Though it was discovered in the mid-1300's, it became a big item for sailing ships to look out for to bring back home. The name comes from the French for Grey Amber, as opposed to brown amber of vegetal form. Ambergris is primarily found in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bahamas, the East Indies, Asia.
Today, with the conservation efforts to restore endangered species like the whale, it is no longer appropriate to use. Synthetics are substituted, but they are not quite the same.
As a point of interest, ambergris is still used in Chanel No. 5, not everybody's favorite, but you can see why it is lasting and enduring. It has a little something different and unusual to offer!
And finally, the word "perfume" comes from the Latin, for "through smoke", as it was originally intended as incense.


  1. I linked this post on my blog, I hope you don't mind :)

  2. Hi all,
    Have a nice day.

    Gold Jewels

  3. Thank you! Enlightening! You are true to your name!
    I was looking for this exact quote from Patrick o'Brien, stood in front of his very-loved 21 volumes on my shelf, and went to the computer to try to find it quicker than paging through the tomes. Thank YOU! lovely website! Christina

  4. Thank you for your kind words!I, too, have all the books, but the last, the 21st. I am due to read it very soon. I love your blog, love the watercolors! Just beautiful. Keep in touch as you can. I am always posting something "enlightening"!