According to the ancients, parfumeurs, and Arab royalty, the old saying might as well go: “Worth its weight in whale waste”.
A news story today sparked a memory.
How about this magic moment? A couple in Lancashire in England found a lump of ambergris that is possibly worth AU$ 100,000. The couple are already in negotiations with prospective buyers from France and New Zealand.
Ambergris is the legendary ingredient in perfumes (in French, it means “grey amber”). When I walk the beach, I follow the smell of rotting fish and scan for greyish lumps. Don’t you?
Ambergris comes from the cured secretion of sperm whales. The whale secretes a substance to heal its stomach from the scratches of the cuttlefish and squid beaks it swallows when feeding. This gets out through the gastrointestinal system and is left floating on the ocean for years. The floating part is what gives it its slightly salty and warm smell. It retains its scent for centuries, just like musk.
It’s hard not to fall in love with ambergris. Here is a solid lump of whale feces, weathered down—oxidized by salt water, degraded by sunlight, and eroded by waves — from the tarry mass to something that smells, depending on the piece and whom you’re talking to, like musk, violets, fresh-hewn wood, tobacco, dirt, Brazil nut, fern-copse, damp woods, new-mown hay, seaweed in the sun, the wood of old churches, or pretty much any other sweet-but-earthy scent.
Everyone loves ambergris, just not so much when it’s fresh. It’s smell is extremely fecal (think cow dung) and has no value for perfumery. But let it float on the ocean for years? Now you’ve got an evocative scent, an effulgent patina, and waxy texture.
So, naturally, I’m gonna have to wax poetic on ya’…..from the archives, my throwback Valentine love poem*.
Like the beachcombers
who found calcified remnants sweet smelling, waxy and gray,
coughed up by sperm whales, no less;
treasures of “floating gold”
prized by ancient Egyptians,
on the coast of Australia,
I look at you and see ambergris.
Well, fellow beachcombers, is it or isn’t it? If you see embedded squid beaks, book that private jet.
Or give the grey lump a hot needle test. Heat a needle and touch it briefly to the surface. If it’s ambergris, the surface will melt instantly, turning to an oily, molten black residue and a small puff of musky smelling smoke will be emitted. Ah, the sweet smell of success.
*My blogging partner/poet Patty wrote a much love-lier Valentine poem here.