Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, Calif., is rarely at a loss for words when describing ambergris. “It’s beyond comprehension how beautiful it is,” she says. “It’s transformative. There’s a shimmering quality to it. It reflects light with its smell. It’s like an olfactory gemstone.”
Ambergris, a waxy excretion formed in the intestines of sperm whales (thanks to their inability to digest squid beaks), is one of the most sought-after substances in the world. Ambergris sells for roughly $20 a gram, gold for $30. It has been used as a cure for pestilence, and, according to 10th century Muslim trader Ibn Hawqal, as an aphrodisiac. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville claimed that ambergris, “an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale,” was “largely used in perfumery, in pastiles, precious candles, hair powders, and pomatum.” More recently, it has appeared in overpriced delicacies, such as the $4,700 mince pie created last month for charity by U.K. food designer Andrew Stellitano, and even more overpriced perfumes. In 2005, a 200-year-old fragrance originally made for Marie Antoinette, which featured ambergris as a main ingredient, was reproduced in limited quantities for $11,000 a bottle.
Ambergris has made the occasional beachcomber rich, as it did this last summer when 40 kilograms of ambergris were discovered on the North Island of New Zealand, rumored to net $400,000 for the finders. Adrienne Beuse, the owner of New Zealand-based Ambergris Essentials, an international trader of raw ambergris, claims it’s one of the few recession-proof commodities. “If I have the supply,” she says, “I’ll always be able to sell it.”
Like truffle sourcing, the ambergris trade is shrouded in secrecy. Chris Kemp, a neuroscientist from Grand Rapids, Mich., spent years investigating the ambergris business, which he documents in his book, Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, to be published by the University of Chicago Press this May. “If you believe what you read in the media,” he says, “you’d think ambergris is something that people just find by accident.” The truth, he claims, is far more clandestine. “There’s a whole underground network of full-time collectors and dealers trying to make their fortune in ambergris. They know the beaches and the precise weather conditions necessary for ambergris to wash up on the shore.” And when whale-poop gold is on the line, he says, “it can get violent.”
Several years ago, Ross Sherman, a longtime ambergris collector in New Zealand, was hit by a car on Baylys Beach, driven by one of his main competitors, John James Vodanovich. Sherman fought back with a PVC pipe and escaped with minor injuries. A court case soon followed. Neither man denied many details of the hit-and-run incident other than what they were both actually doing at the beach. According to the New Zealand Herald, Sherman was purportedly “kite-fishing” and Vodanovich was identified as a “self-employed seaweed gatherer.” Beuse, who employs what she calls “dedicated collectors and beachcombers” to supply her with ambergris, isn’t surprised by the territorial aggression. “There aren’t too many professions where you could go to work and stumble upon $30,000 one morning,” she says. “It doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen.”
To outsiders, it may seem like easy money—ambergris can wash ashore anywhere there are sperm whales, which is pretty much every ocean shoreline—but identifying the stuff is often an exercise in futility. According to Kemp, some strange things have been mistaken for ambergris, including dog feces, rotting seagulls, old whale blubber, eroded rubber, and at least one decomposed sheep carcass. Many ambergris hunters don’t even know which whale orifice it comes from. “Despite what most people think, it’s not vomit,” Kemp says. “That’s one of the biggest misnomers about ambergris. Unfortunately, it comes out the other end.”
The easiest way to recognize ambergris is by smell. Fresh ambergris, straight out of the whale, has an odor that’s often likened to “scented cow dung.” But after floating in the salty ocean for decades or more, it can take on a very different odor, described as reminiscent of tobacco, Brazil nuts, a fern copse, or the wood in old churches. “The problem with trying to describe the smell of ambergris,” says Kemp, “is that it really only smells like ambergris.” When used in perfumes, it’s rarely the dominant scent. Rather, it acts as a fixative and fragrance amplifier. Douglas Stewart, a chemist at Salt Lake City’s Scentsual Antiquities, which supplies ambergris to perfumers, says it “alters the quality of the existing notes and makes them bigger, deeper and more expansive than they can ever be on their own.”
Then there’s the small problem that the use of ambergris might technically be against the law. Ask anybody with a vested interest in ambergris about its legality and you’re likely to get a different answer every time. Chandler Burr, the curator of the Center of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, claims there is “an unofficial ban on using anything from an animal,” so most perfume houses use synthetic ambergris compounds such as Ambrox. “Nobody uses natural ambergris anymore,” he insists.
Dominique Dubrana, a Frenchman living in Italy who sells original scents and perfume ingredients on his website, profumo.it, has a very different take. “I am selling ambergris,” he says in response to Burr. “And it is not illegal except in Australia.” Derek Brown, a cocktail blogger and co-owner of Washington, D.C.’s posh Columbia Room bar, which occasionally serves drinks with ambergris, is fairly certain that the laws regarding ambergris “are ambiguous. My understanding is that sperm whale products are banned, but there’s a loophole. Waste products are fair game.” Michael Payne at the National Marine Fisheries Service, a U.S. federal agency in Silver Spring, Md., says that the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is far from ambiguous. “It’s illegal to possess ambergris in any form, for any reason,” he says. Even picking up a stray lump from the beach is prohibited, according to Payne. However, there isn’t a lot of precedent for prosecution. “I know we’ve issued warning letters,” he says. “It was probably a very long time ago. It hasn’t been since 1990.”
It explains why top U.S. perfume houses have either stopped using ambergris as an ingredient or stopped talking about it. Tilar Mazzeo, the author of The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume, says that “historically Chanel No. 5 certainly did use ambergris.” The original formula leaked in the 1930s, she says, and “the copies I have seen include ambergris or ambrein—the essential scent element of ambergris—as an ingredient.” Not so, says Philip Kraft, a German chemist who creates scents for Givaudan, a Swiss manufacturer of fragrances. “There never was any ambergris in Chanel No. 5,” he says. “Not in the formula from 1921, nor in the one of today.” A representative from Chanel declined to comment for this story.
One industry insider, the vice-president of fragrance ingredients for a supplier of raw perfume materials based in Oakland, N.J., was willing to speak on the record, only to realize in hindsight that he shouldn’t have. (He’d been instructed, he told us, that we were not welcome to use his name or the company’s name.) Prior to his change of heart, he said he sourced ambergris and provided it to perfumers, but couldn’t take it to a company like L’Oreal or Estée Lauder because he would not be able to supply them with enough of the stuff to meet their scale demands. Later in our conversation, however, he backpedaled, saying that ambergris was only a very small part of his business. A few minutes after, in an e-mail, he insisted he didn’t sell any ambergris at all.
Because of this skittishness, anybody outside and even a few of those within the ambergris industry may never get a full picture of how it works. Mandy Aftel, for one, is wary of her peers in the trade. “Be careful who you talk to,” she says, after asking who else had been interviewed for this story. “Some of them are nuts.”