Ambergris (Ambra grisea, Ambre gris, ambergrease, or grey amber) is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.

Ambergris has a peculiar sweet, earthy odor (similar to isopropyl alcohol). The principal historical use of ambergris was as a fixative in perfumery, though it has now been largely displaced by synthetics.


Ambergris occurs as a biliary secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale, and can be found floating upon the sea, or in the sand near the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of whales. Because giant squids' beaks have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the whale's intestine produces the substance as a means of facilitating the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have inadvertently eaten.

Ambergris can be found in the Atlantic Ocean; on the coasts of Brazil and Madagascar; and on the coast of Africa, of the East Indies, The Maldives, mainland China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Molucca islands. However, most commercially collected ambergris comes from the Bahama Islands and Providence Island in the Caribbean.

Physical properties

Ambergris is found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, weighing from ½ oz (15 g) to 100 pounds (50 kg) or more. When initially expelled by or removed from the whale, the fatty precursor of ambergris is pale white in color (sometimes streaked with black), soft in consistency, with a strong fecal smell. Following months to years of photo-degradation and oxidation in the ocean, this precursor gradually hardens, developing a dark gray or black color, a crusty and waxy texture, and a peculiar odor that is at once sweet, earthy, marine, and animalic. Its smell has been described by many as a vastly richer and smoother version of isopropanol without its stinging harshness.

In this developed condition, ambergris has a specific gravity ranging from 0.780 to 0.926. It melts at about 62 °C to a fatty, yellow resinous liquid; and at 100 °C it is volatilized into a white vapor. It is soluble in ether, and in volatile and fixed oils. Ambergris is relatively nonreactive to acid. White crystals of a substance called ambrein can be separated from ambergris by heating raw ambergris in alcohol, then allowing the resulting solution to cool.

Replacement compounds and economics

Historically, the primary commercial use of ambergris has been in fragrance chemistry, although it has also been used for medicinal and flavoring purposes. Ambergris has historically been an important perfume odorant and is highly sought. However, it is difficult to get a consistent and reliable supply of high quality ambergris. Due to demand for ambergris and its high price, replacement compounds have been sought out by the fragrance industry and chemically synthesized. The most important of these is ambroxan, ambrox and its steroisomers, which has largely taken its place and is the most widely used ambergris-replacement odorant in perfume manufacturing [Citation | last = Chauffat | first = Corinne | last2=Morris | first2=Anthony | title = From Ambergris to Cetalox Laevo | journal= Perfumer & Flavourist| volume = 29 | pages = 34-41 | date = March/April 2004 | year = 2004] . The oldest and most commercially significant synthesis of ambrox is from sclareol (primarily extracted from clary sage), although syntheses have been devised from a variety of other natural products, including cis-abienol and thujone. Procedures for the microbial production of ambrox have also been devised. [Cheetham, P. S. J., "The use of biotransformations for the production of flavors and fragrances - flavor, fragrance and cosmetic production by biotransformations by fungus, yeast and bacterium," "Trends Biotechnology". 11(11):478-88, 1993.]

As of 2006, raw ambergris fetches approximately US$10 per gram, with much higher prices possible for particularly high-quality samples. [ NYTimes article] ] [ [ BBC article] ] In the United States, importing, buying, or selling ambergris — including ambergris that has washed ashore — was considered a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. [ MMPA] ] However, in 2001 this ruling was overturned, and ambergris was deemed not to be a byproduct of the whaling industry, since the whale expels this substance naturally. There is currently no prohibition in the buying and selling of ambergris in the United States.Fact|date=February 2008

Historical and cross-cultural uses

Ambergris has been mostly known for its use in creating perfume and fragrance much like musk. While perfumes can still be found with ambergris around the world, American perfumers usually avoid it due to legal ambiguities. The ancient Chinese called the substance "dragon's spittle fragrance." [ Strange but True: Whale Waste Is Extremely Valuable: Scientific American ] ] Ancient Egyptians used burned ambergris as incense. During the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague. This was because the fragrance covered the smell of the air which was believed to be the cause of plague.Fact|date=September 2008

This substance has also been used historically as a flavouring for food. In some cases, people consider ambergris as an aphrodisiac. During the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.

Ambergris was also moulded, dried, decorated and worn as jewellery, particularly during the European Renaissance. It was often formed into beads.Fact|date=September 2008

References in literature

*The writer Herman Melville makes mention of ambergris in "Moby-Dick". He discusses at length how ambergris was commonly found in dead whales floating in the South Pacific.

*In the novel and movie Hannibal, Hannibal Lecter sends Clarice Starling a perfume with an ambergris base.


External links

* [ University of Miami Ambergris FAQ (out dated info)]
* [ Natural History Magazine Article: Floating Gold -- The Romance of Ambergris]
* [ Ambergris - A Pathfinder and Annotated Bibliography]
* [ On the chemistry and ethics of Ambergris]
* [ "Scientific American" Strange but True: Whale Waste Is Extremely Valuable]
* [ "Ambergris"] - Moby-Dick: Chapter 92

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • ambergris — (n.) early 15c., from M.Fr. ambre gris gray amber (see AMBER (Cf. amber)), a wax like substance of ashy colour, found floating in tropical seas, and as a morbid secretion in the intestines of the sperm whale. Used in perfumery, and formerly in… …   Etymology dictionary

  • Ambergris — Am ber*gris ([a^]m b[ e]r*gr[=e]s), n. [F. ambre gris, i. e., gray amber; F. gris gray, which is of German origin: cf. OS. gr[^i]s, G. greis, gray haired. See {Amber}.] A substance of the consistence of wax, found floating in the Indian Ocean and …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • ambergris — ► NOUN ▪ a wax like substance secreted from the intestines of the sperm whale, found floating in tropical seas and used in perfume manufacture. ORIGIN from Old French ambre gris grey amber …   English terms dictionary

  • ambergris — [am′bərgrēs΄, am′bərgris΄] n. [ME ambregris < OFr ambre gris < ambre (see AMBER) + gris < Frank * grīs, akin to MHG, OS, Du gris, gray] a grayish, waxy substance from the intestines of sperm whales, often found floating in tropical seas …   English World dictionary

  • ambergris — /am beuhr grees , gris/, n. an opaque, ash colored secretion of the sperm whale intestine, usually found floating on the ocean or cast ashore: used in perfumery. [1375 1425; < MF ambre gris gray amber (see AMBER); r. late ME imbergres] * * * Waxy …   Universalium

  • ambergris — [15] The original term for ambergris (a waxy material from the stomach of the sperm whale) was amber. But as confusion began to arise between the two substances amber and ambergris, amber came to be used for both in all the languages that had… …   The Hutchinson dictionary of word origins

  • ambergris — [15] The original term for ambergris (a waxy material from the stomach of the sperm whale) was amber. But as confusion began to arise between the two substances amber and ambergris, amber came to be used for both in all the languages that had… …   Word origins

  • ambergris — noun A solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish color, produced in the intestines of the sperm whale. It is used in perfumes. And as for the other whale, why, I’ll agree to get more oil by chopping up and trying out these three …   Wiktionary

  • ambergris — [[t]æ̱mbə(r)griːs[/t]] N UNCOUNT Ambergris is a waxy substance produced by sperm whales. It is used to make some perfumes …   English dictionary

  • ambergris — ambra statusas T sritis chemija apibrėžtis Vaškinė medžiaga, susidaranti kašaloto žarnyne. atitikmenys: angl. ambergris rus. амбра …   Chemijos terminų aiškinamasis žodynas

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