Ambergris - the technical term for hunks of sperm whale vomit - has long been a component in high end perfumes. The whales eat all kinds of things, including shells, bones and other hard or sharp objects that it can’t digest. Instead of trying to pass the spiky bits, the whales coat them in this sticky substance and cough them back up like cats cough up hairballs. When that hunk-o-junk meets the seawater, a chemical reaction happens that turns the slimy mass into a little rock-like object that can be collected from the beaches.
It might seem like an unlikely candidate for perfumes, since the stuff apparently smells about as gross as it sounds. “To some people the odour is nauseous while to others it is attractive and even sensuous. There is certainly an animalic component, reminiscent of farm animals, or even a faecal note, perhaps like that of a well rotted manure heap,” writes an online ambergris guide. But the perfume industry isn’t using it for its smell. Instead, they use it because the little rocks have special chemistry: they bind fatty molecules together.
Fragrances are usually made of fats, also called lipids. These ambergris molecules are lipophilic - meaning they like lipids. So they can bind the lipids in the fragrance together and make sure they stick together and to skin.
Ambergris critics argue that it endangers the already vulnerable sperm whale from which it comes. Others dislike the use of animal products in their cosmetics in general. Not to mention its rarity, which drives up prices. One gram of ambergris goes for $20.
Enter: science. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have discovered a plant-based alternative to ambergris that is similarly lipophilic. “We’ve now discovered that a gene from balsam fir is much more efficient at producing such natural compounds, which could make production of this bio-product less expensive and more sustainable,” Joerg Bohlmann said in the press release. So now, rather than crawling the beaches for little hunks of whale vomit, researchers could manufacture a similar compound in the lab.
Before you go check your perfume bottles, take solace that ambergris isn’t generally used in American perfumes, according to Scientific American, but European companies still use it. For a long time it was in Chanel No. 5. The market is big enough that there are ambergris dealers, like Bernard Perrin. He sells stock to not only perfume companies but to wealthy families as well. “We also sell it to a royal family in the Middle East and they use it as an aphrodisiac. Apparently they take some milk, some honey, and grind up small quantities of the amber and put that in as well,” he told Scientific American.
It’s also worth noting that no one has ever actually seen a sperm whale vomit up ambergris. Some think it might come out the other end. Just another mystery science has yet to solve.
Via: The Atlantic
Images: Sperm Whale by Archibald Thorburn, Wikimedia Commons