What is Ambergris?

In short, Ambergris (AUM-BAH-GREE) or “Grey Amber” as it’s name in French is derived, is a substance that is produced in the bowels of the Sperm whale (Physeter Macrocephalus) which is occasionally expelled from the whale through the rear end (as opposed to its common nick name of “whale vomit”) and is found washed upon the shores of various parts of the world, where it is found and sold for exuberant sums of money, as it is a highly prized perfume ingredient. But the reality is that Ambergris is so much more than that, Ambergris is a romance of mystery and infatuation that has gripped the senses of persons lucky enough to come in contact with it for thousands of years past. It is a fascinating and seductive material that has the most peculiar beginnings and life’s journey but ends in some of the most exquisite works of mankind. It is a mysterious, unique and wondrous gift from the sea.  

Biologically, Ambergris begins its story in the belly of a whale, one of the main food sources of the mighty Sperm whale are squid, squid are invertebrates and have no solid bones but they do posses a hard and sharp, parrot shaped beak for their mouth. Over time, as the whale consumes and digests a multitude of squid, these sharp “plastic like” squid beaks begin to build up in compartments in the stomachs and intestines of the whale. As a defense mechanism from that irritation, it is believed that secretions are produced in the digestive tract to bind and coat these squid beaks and help to encase them and removed them from the body. As part of this process, bacteria colonize this mass as it travels though the intestines and they begin to chemically alter it through their metabolites and they may be responsible for the creation of chemical compounds that will later be the sought-after magic of ambergris in the perfume world. Eventually one of two outcomes will occur, either the mass will pass out of the rectum safely and leave the animal unscathed or, the mass will become lodged in the bowels and continually grow in size as layer upon layer of new secretions are deposited over it until it becomes a large blockage and results in the animal’s death. Either way, Ambergris will enter the next phase of its journey after being expelled from the Sperm whale in which it was formed.

Little is known about this biological forming process, what we do know comes from the very few instances in history where ambergris was recorded to have been recovered from the bowels of dead Sperm whales. More recently, several modern necropsies of Sperm whales that had beached themselves and died, along with new emerging science which has looked more closely at the chemical makeup of ambergris and DNA contained within it, has all given us a better understanding of how, why and where Ambergris can occur. It’s difficult to know if this excretion potential is something shared across the entire species or if only select individuals are producers of ambergris. Due to its extreme rarity it is safe to say that not all sperm whales are passing ambergris on every daily trip to the loo. On the contrary, some scientists clam to have been studying the fecal matter of Sperm whales for decades and have never encountered anything that looks like a piece of ambergris. Scientists have speculated that as few as 10,000 individuals or about 3% of the global population actually produce ambergris in their lifetimes. Needless to say, with average annual global finds of less than a half a ton in total weight, even from the whale’s perspective, it’s a very rare event and could possibly even be likened to the rarity of the natural forming of a pearl in an oyster.

After being expelled from the whale, Ambergris begins its second and most commonly, its longest journey. As a fatty, waxy mass, Ambergris has a density in water likened to that of water-logged driftwood and so it floats and bobs about just under the surface of the ocean. Depending on where in the worlds oceans it was expelled, a piece of Ambergris can find itself caught in oceanic currents that see it travel thousands upon thousands of miles and in some cases spend decades and possibly even more than a century drifting about in the world’s oceans. It is during this time that similarly to wine and whisky aged in a cellar, that Ambergris is chemically changed by the sun and saltwater as it slowly ages, cures, refines and changes in both its appearance, from darker shades to silvers and whites as well as it’s olfactory presentation form musky and pungent to sweet and floral. Eventually it will meet a coastline or a violent tempest and it will be cast upon the shore, there is will sit and wait for either an unsuspecting person to stumble across it or for one of the small handful of dedicated Ambergris hunters to discover it. Or the sea may even reclaim its gift with the high tide and continue it on towards the next shoreline and lucky passerby.

Ambergris can be found all over the globe but is most common in areas affected by large circular oceanic currents. Most notably these regions include the Bahamas Islands, The leeward Caribbean islands, The British Isles, the French and Portuguese Atlantic coasts, the east African Coast, Madagascar, the Arabian peninsular, the Indo Pacific islands, New Zealand and the Eastern Australian Coast.

In the Bahamas, Ambergris is typically found on the Atlantic ocean facing beaches of Abaco, Eleuthera, Cat Island, Exuma, Long Island, Acklins Island and Mayaguna.

History of Ambergris

Ambergris has been used and admired by mankind for at least the last four thousand years, from the ancient Egyptians to the ancient Greeks to the ancient Chinese. There is no one single story of that first person to pick up this seductive odorous rock from the shoreline and describe its wonders or attributes and dare to suggest where it came from, but we do know that folk law and legend had it described in those times as the spittle of the gods from mount Olympus and the drool of dragons as they slept on the cliffs over the sea.  

From its first discovery, Ambergris has been a rare, treasured and extremely costly commodity. Ancient Arabic merchants who traded it as incense and aphrodisiac noted its value in near about 1,000 B.C. as being as valuable if not more so than gold. From the far east to the middle east and the Greek and Roman empires, Ambergris was traded as a perfume oil, an incense, an aphrodisiac, a spice for gourmet food and as various forms of medicine. It was noted as one of the most precious items and in many accounts it’s rarity meant it was both highly sought after and very difficult to come by.

In the Middle Ages it was common to find it traded in small vials called pomanders which were hung about the neck in the belief that it would ward off the plague which was at that time thought to be spread by a foul smell in the air. In Islamic religious traditions Ambergris was a common commodity taken as offering on pilgrimage to Mecca and in Christianity Ambergris is one of the ingredients used in the creation of the sacred holy anointing oil which is even used to crown the monarchs of Europe. Western Europeans dominated the trade in Ambergris in the great age of discovery from the 1300s to 1700s. The Portuguese and Dutch were common merchants of Ambergris out of east Africa, India and the far East Indies and the Spanish and English commonly supplied it from their conquests in the Caribbean and Americas. In fact, the claiming and settling of the island of Bermuda was in large part due to the reported proliferation of Ambergris found upon its shores and likewise, the first settlers of the islands of the Bahamas, the Eleutheran Adventurers, who were a band of Bermudian puritans, set about recovering large volumes of Ambergris from the island of Eleuthera in the 1650s. There are many notable instances of the use of Ambergris in the journals of history, King Charles II of England enjoyed eggs with Ambergris for breakfast, King Louis XIV of France consumed ambergris in his medicinal broths and Marie-Antoinette not only utilized a variety of lavish perfumes filled with ambergris but also drank hot chocolate with ambergris regularly. Many of the kings and queens of Europe have commissioned the top perfumes houses of France to produce signature fragrances for them and their royal families, all of which almost certainly contained copious amounts of Ambergris.

In the pop culture of recent history, Ambergris is still an ever-present luxury, it was a common additive to cigarettes throughout the 20th century and many a movie star, leaders of nations and fashion icons have worn hand crafted fragrances which centered around the mysterious and secretive commodity that is Ambergris, even the Iconic Chanel No 5. By Coco Chanel is rumored to have a hearty dose of Ambergris at its base.  

Composition and use of Ambergris

Ambergris is a unique material in far more ways than one, many of its properties and attributes are hard to compare as there is seldom any other material in the world with which to liken it to. Ambergris can be as hard as a stone and very similar in appearance but is light in weight, sticky and waxy to the touch and feel, it has a sort of woody grain look to its interior but can also be chalk like, mottled with orbs or fudgy. It is commonly found in tubular or boulder shapes with layers forming its mass and routinely you will see the protruding shapes of black squid beaks dotted across its surface. It readily melts with heat and can dissolve into a dark black or golden brown thick and extremely sticky liquid. The fragrance has a far-reaching spectrum and can present from a pungent, manure-ish, stench to an earthy grassy, musk, a sweet and robust tobacco, a spicy and zingy vanilla and sweet and caramel like florals that are so seductive that you have a hard time telling yourself not to bite into it. It can be found in physical states that are either taffy-like and fudgy or rock hard, crisp and brittle. It is common to refine it down into powder, to combine it with various oils or to solve it into strong concentrated alcohol.

In Fragrance and perfumery, Ambergris is used primarily as a base note, being in the section of animalic musk’s, and as a fixative, where it bolsters lesser potent notes and holds the entire blend onto the skin longer. Western European perfume arts have almost entirely utilized Ambergris in the combination with alcohol were as the middle and far eastern perfume arts see Ambergris almost entirely blended with oils like sandalwood and agar-wood ouds in what are known as Attars.

Medicinally, both Aruvedic and Chinese medicine’s prescribe Ambergris for various ailments, from problems of the heart and respiratory system to brain and nervous system disorders, dysfunctions of the joints, and as an increase for vitality, for sexual enhancement and dysfunction and a treatment for depression. Though no formal investigative studies have been undertaken on Ambergris in western medicine as yet, a study on rats did show an enhancement effect on sexual performance and drive. What is known is that Ambergris contains a dramatic number of steroids in its makeup, many of which are likely to include anti-inflammatory and rejuvenating properties.      

Although not as common currently, it wasn’t uncommon in the not so recent past to find ambergris in certain alcoholic beverages, in ice cream, in cigarettes and in some daring culinary works.

Chemically, Ambergris is made up of many individual components, the main two of which are Ambrein and Ambroxide, these two key components form the olfactory notes and functions most sought after in perfumery. Beyond these two components there is a myriad of steroids that combine with sterols and waxy esters to form the physical matrix mass of ambergris.   

Today there are several synthetic industrial recreations of these key components and much of the commercial perfumery space now utilizes these cheaper alternatives, but the finest niche perfumers will attest that nothing can ever match the versatility and depth of real ambergris and there is still many a fine fragrance house that will not uses anything but real premium ambergris.

Legal status and Denominations

As an excrement byproduct, Ambergris finds itself in a unique position as one of the few “Animalic’s” in the fragrance world that is entirely animal safe. As part of the CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) international treaties, Ambergris is seen as a waste excretion and not a direct animal product and thus is NOT prohibited for trade, use and sale. Although there has been an ever increasing move away from animal products in western perfumery over the last three decades from both an environmentalist and humane vantage point with valid reason and merit, Ambergris is one of those cases of throwing the baby out with the bath water. In all fairness one can easily argue that the use of ambergris in commercial products today is promoting a healthy and happy sperm whale population, by using ambergris in this 21st century we not only keep the wonder and fascination of this ancient and beautiful material alive, but we can actually promote a healthy planet and natural bio diversity. In order for there to be ambergris found there needs to be a large and healthy global Sperm whale population, and in order to maintain that population we need clean oceans, we need diverse healthy eco systems, we need pollution control and we need to take care of our planet as a whole. This becomes a major incentive for industry and cultures to support and utilize this animal waste product that is a historical wonder of the world, in order to secure the safety and healthy future of the mighty and magnificent creatures that produce that fascinating waste product.

Sadly, this is not yet the norm of everyday, several nations still look to dissuade the use and trade of Ambergris and ban its commercial use and sale. In the USA, the endangered species act of 1973, rightly so defines the sperm whale as an endangered species, however it also includes ambergris in the list of banned animal products derived from the sperm whale. Thus, although not routinely enforced by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in their portfolio of responsibility for marine mammals, it remains a law on the books and Ambergris as a prohibited item of open trade and sale within the USA.   

Other nations that have also taken stances against the use and sale of ambergris are Australia where it is fully banned as a whale product under the Environmental protection Act 1999 and India where it is a highly regulated material and maintained as the property of the state.

In Europe and the UK ambergris is defined by the definition of an excrement as seen by CITES and thus perfectly legal to utilize and commercially develop.

Similarly in The Bahamas, Ambergris is completely legal to sell and develop, with the Bahamas being one of the first countries in the world to accept and regulate the legal open trade of Ambergris through the issuance of Export licensing, of which Ambergris Bahamas is the Premier Licensed exporter and supplier of Ambergris from the Bahamas.


French:       Ambre gris

English:       Ambergris

German:      Grauer Amber

Italian:          Ambra Grigia

Spanish:       Ambàr gray

Portuguese: Âmbar cinza

Dutch:          Ambergrijs

Arabic:         Anbar عنبر

Chinese:     龙 涎 香 Lóng xián xiang

Indonesian: Muntahan ikan paus

Hindi:          एम्बरग्रीस

Japanese:    ア ン バ ー グ リ ス

Russian:        амбра