Floating Gold

The Romance of Ambergris

It is common talk among dealers in perfumers’ ingredients that ambergris possesses fixative qualities, that is, that it endows associated blossom odors in tinctures with a greater degree of permanence than they would otherwise have. The best conclusion drawn from much experiment, however, is that it really exerts no appreciable influence of the sort, but that it merely “prolongs a certain note” due only to its agreeable and lasting bouquet. In other words, its real purpose may be said to be that of hoodwinking the olfactory sense of perfume users. After the delicate breath of roses or lilies of the valley has entirely evanesced, the exhalation of ambergris still remains, and possesses abundant charm of its own to compensate for whatever has been lost, or, perhaps, to prevent a realization that anything has been lost.

In the western world the use of ambergris in fine perfumes is the sole remaining reason for its high value, but in the Orient it is still prized for the spicing of wines and other ancient purposes. The Malays and the Chinese buy it eagerly, and the latter test its purity by scraping a trifle into boiling tea, in which it should dissolve completely, without leaving a fatty film.

Despite all that has been learned about ambergris, there seems to be no abso1ute chemical or microscopic test for identifying it. It is to be judged in the manner of a connoisseur grading wines, by recognition of general appearance, bouquet, etc., rather than by rigid scientific standards. Even the squid beaks might not serve to distinguish it from other matter from a whale’s insides and, moreover, these markers have been fraudulently mixed into tallow or tree-gum on more occasions than one! Experienced perfumers are, nevertheless, not deceived by natural or artificial imitations. When a specimen is shaved into cold alcohol in the proportion of about four ounces of the substance to a gallon of fluid, the odor is so characteristic, to one who has previous1y experienced it, that all doubt is dispelled. The mixture will stand a very large dilution, and when a little is added to rich perfumes it never fails to give a definite and appealing tang.

Black ambergris, occasionally found in whales, is believed to take its undesirable color from the sepia or ink of squids, the secretion that these free-swimming mollusks eject into the water to make a “smoke-screen” about themselves upon the approach of danger. Long immersion in the ocean washes the dark pigment out of the ambergris, leaving the gray residue with its chemical properties unaltered. When pure, its specific gravity is never far from 0.90, so it is light enough to float buoyantly in either fresh or salt water, in which it cannot decay.

Part II (appeared in the May-June 1933 issue of Natural History)

But what of the actual value of ambergris in the open market? This, as hinted in part I, ranges rather widely, in tune with the law of supply and demand but, in general, high grade lots fetch from $14 to $20 an ounce. If you are lucky, therefore, your find may be literally worth its weight in gold. In 1898 a London merchant had a lump weighing 270 pounds, which was sold in Paris for 85 shillings per ounce, or £18,360. A copy of the Boston Ledger of the year 1859 records the largest known haul—a lump weighing 750 pounds, all taken from one whale by the crew of a Nantucket ship. The account goes on to say that the largest quantity known to have come from a single whale up to that date weighed 182 pounds. Since that time amounts varying between 60 and 200 pounds in weight have been taken from the carcass of one whale, or have been salvaged in the form of single concretions on the sea or shore. The total production in the United States during the last year for which I can find data (1922) was 44 pounds. This was all landed at New Bedford, and brought only $11,000.

Fine ambergris in the form of flotsam has come into the trade, as well as that “untimely ripped” from whales, but as to whether the floating supply has been discharged by living carriers, or has survived the decomposition of dead whales, 1ater to be buoyantly resurrected from the depths of the sea, we have no means of knowing. The Bahamas are a famous collecting ground on the American side of the Atlantic, and it is significant that the pilot charts show no less than three “Ambergris Cays” in the romantic waters of the Spanish Main.

The early history of Bermuda is also bound up with an ambergris yarn. When Richard More, the first governor, arrived in 1612, he found that three shipwrecked mariners had concealed a large quantity of drift ambergris in lumps weighing fifty pounds or more, which they had plotted to transport secretly to England. The governor seized the treasure in the name of the Virginia Company and the ambitious sailormen all but came to the gallows. The record contains the following warning to His Majesty’s representatives:

As touchinge the findinge of Ambergreece upon the shore which is driven up by every storme where the wind bloweth, we would have you remember that by such as you appointe to that business, you may be deceaved of the best and fayrest except you be very carefull in your choice of honest men.

Strange stories of finds, some apocryphal and some with a basis of truth, have been set down in countless scattered publications. One tells of a chunk of ambergris that during many years formed part of a flower-covered rockery in a New Zealand farmer’s garden. When the nature of the “rock” was discovered, it sold for four pounds five shillings per ounce. In Barbados, so runs another circumstantial yarn, a market-bound black girl lowered a basket of live poultry from her head, and sat down to rest upon a rock on the beach. She presently found that her cotton dress had stuck dismally to the rock. An apothecary learned of the incident and garnered a block of the best gray ambergris weighing 1400 ounces, which brought him five pounds ten shillings per ounce. Similar tales have come to my attention from Japan, Hawaii, Madagascar, Morocco, Brazil, Ireland, and the Persian Gulf. Finding ambergris is almost in the nature of an ethnic tradition!

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