What Comes Out of a Whale and Goes Into Perfume? Ambergris!

A dealer holds a chunk of ambergris.
A New Zealand dealer holds a chunk of ambergris (or “gray amber”). Photo by Christopher Kemp

Literature is full of quests. Jason hunted for the golden fleece. Dorothy followed the yellow brick road to find her way home to Kansas. Christopher Kemp, you might say, went looking for a piece of whale poop, which in its most refined state is the worth-its-weight-in-gold substance known as ambergris. The material is used as a fixative in perfumery; it stabilizes and anchors the other notes, as the ingredients of a fragrance are known, and adds an underlying basso profundo of animalic mustiness.

Five years ago, Kemp, who is a molecular biologist at Michigan State, turned on the television while living in New Zealand and was intrigued by a story about a mysterious lump of material the size of a 44 gallon drum that had washed on shore. The initial speculation—that it was ambergris and worth a fortune— touched off a civilian scrum as locals hacked off pieces and carted their “payload” home. It turned out to be a cast-off piece of lard. The incident was the irritant that produced a pearl of a book— Floating Gold—A Natural (&Unnatural) History of Ambergris published by the University of Chicago Press. We asked Kemp to tell us more.

Many people must have seen the broadcast about the mysterious lump that washed ashore, caused a gold rush-like stampede, and turned out to be lard instead of ambergris, but you are the only one who wrote a book about it? How do you account for that?

I’d never heard of ambergris, but when I turned the TV on [and saw the news report] it must have burrowed into my subconscious. Every time I went to the beach I would look and say: ‘Is that it?’ Usually you Google something and get all your answers in ten minutes. Ambergris resisted that ten-minute Google. I wanted more. I wanted to know if people still use it and how it’s used and where do you find 

Sperm whales survive almost exclusively on squid. Squid will pass through different stomachs [a whale has four] and the beaks, which are indigestible, will chaff the gut and cause irritation and build up as a solid. Sometimes it is passed; sometimes it obstructs the gut and causes a rupture.

The whale expert Robert Clarke estimated this only occurs in around 1 percent of sperm whales. What besides its rarity accounts for its mystique?

It’s the value of it. The indefinability of the smell. It’s one unlikelihood piled up on another, and all the conditions that have to pile up for it to arrive on shore.

All ambergris is not alike?

No two pieces are the same. Each has been on a unique journey and is a bouquet of that. It comes out black and fecally, soft enough to be rolled into balls. That’s the lowest grade. Over the course of time and oxidation, it becomes silver—the highest grade.

What’s the current market price?
In the European market, it’s being sold for $15,000 a kilogram.

How best to describe the smell?

It’s like someone has been able to bottle the smell you get when you are a block away from the ocean and you are about to begin your vacation.

 I assume that these days all but the most expensive perfumes depend on synthetics.

Yes, synthetics do the job; they fix and stabilize the perfume, but they don’t add the animalic, aggressive, fecally undertone to the perfume that ambergris does. It’s like watching a Beatles cover band play Beatles songs. If you are in a bar and had enough to drink you might be convinced. But probably not.

It seems that thanks to the book, you have become the ambergris authority and people send you pictures of their finds hoping to have them authenticated.

People send me pictures all the time, but it’s difficult to identify by sight alone. If it’s fluorescent orange, I can say absolutely not. Sometimes I’ll have someone pop a bit in an envelope for me to evaluate, but no real ambergris has ever turned up.

If you were going to hunt ambergris where would you go? 

Anywhere that’s pounded by surf. Look around the high tide line. Ambergris bobs along like an iceberg, and so it would gather like any other flotsam on the high tide line after a storm or sustained high winds. It’s going to be lightweight, like pumice and has a sort of waxiness to it.

You write about combing beaches looking for ambergris, but never finding any? How much of a disappointment was that?

I like to think that with hindsight if I had found some there is no way I would have written a book.


Meet the Author
Cathy Newman began her career writing for the Miami News, before joining the staff of National Geographic Magazine where she was Editor at Large. In addition to dozens of articles for the magazine, she is the author of three books for National Geographic. Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent, Women Photographers at National Geographic, and Fashion. She is a regular contributor to Smithsonian Journeys.