Ambergris

Gray Gold

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

This glass vial contains processed ambergris, a prized and valuable commodity that's produced by sperm whales, which was (and still is!) used in high end perfumes.  Ambergris, with a scent that varies from musky to sweet, fixes the scent of perfume to the skin.  It is occasionally found washed up on the shore as a hard, waxy substance, with color that ranges from gray, to brown, to gold, to off-white, to black.

There are differing opinions as to how ambergris is produced in the whale.  Some say that it originates in the throat or stomach of sperm whales, and may be the result of an irritant (such as the beak of a squid).  The irritant is gradually encased in a greasy substance, and eventually expelled by the whale as ambergris into the ocean.  Another, perhaps authoritative, opinion claims that ambergris is transformed fecal matter, a hard mass produced by indigestible material that as it grows in size, ruptures the whale's rectum and is expelled into the ocean.  This process is believed to eventually kill the whale.

Whalers very rarely found ambergris in a dead whale.  However, in 1913, the Charles W. Morgan did just that.  As recorded in the ship's log, the ambergris weighed 13-1/4 pounds, and was likely worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Today, it is illegal in the United States to use ambergris in perfumes because sperm whales are on the endangered species list.  It is still used in France, however.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Do you suppose that ambergris and pearls are the result of similar processes by sperm whales and oysters?
  2. If most ambergris is found washed up on the shore, or floating in the ocean, why do you suppose that it is illegal to use it for perfumes in the United States?
  3. Do you think that the discovery of ambergris by a whaler significantly added to the value of the ship's catch?