Introducing you to the marmite of fragrance: ambergris

By Lauren Carbran

Think fragrance is all flowers and fruit? Think again. Meet the fragrance world’s answer to Marmite – ambergris, which is a popular ingredient that creates a warm, salty smell. Ambergris is a rare substance that builds up in a sperm whale’s intestine and can be found floating in the ocean. And chances are you’ve smelt ambergris in a scent before, and really liked it. To keep you clued up, here’s the lowdown on the most controversial fragrance ingredient…

Amber is actually ambergris

Does your favourite scent have notes of amber in like Mugler Alien (£39 for 30ml, £53 for 60ml) or Paco Rabanne 1 Million (£47 for 50ml, £52.99 for 100ml, £86 for 200ml)? If your heads nodding – this one’s for you. Amber actually doesn’t exist in perfume, it’s in fact the term generally used to describe ambergris – we know, mind blowing.

Ambergris is formed of other fish

It’s hard to resist the appeal of cuttlefish mixed with squid, right? Jokes aside, what you read is true – ambergris is formed in the whale’s digestive tract mixed where the fish has been eaten.  Once excreted it’s a hard, stone-looking substance.

It’s released when a whale dies

‘Ambergris is usually released during decomposition after a whale’s natural death,’ says perfume expert, Roja Dove. Therefore, it’s use in fragrance doesn’t threaten or endanger sperm whales, which are highly protected species.

The fragrance formula for ambergris

When ambergris is released, it’s not yet ready to be in perfume. ‘Ambergris is lighter than water so floats freely on the ocean currents,’ says Roja. ‘But it’s of no interest of a perfumer until it comes into contact with sunlight and salt water for a minimum of 2 years.’ This is because the oxidation process allows it to refine naturally and the longer it’s cured, the sweeter the smell.

What actually happens then?

Basically, ambergris is collected from the high seas or when it has been washed ashore. ‘And when it finally reachers the perfumers laboratory it is a light, pale grey or white colour,’ says Roja. ‘It is left to dry out for several months, after white time it’s fishy smell is replaced with hints of the seashore and tea.’ The process continues with another few months of cold maceration in pure alcohol, which helps it smell subtle and perfume-ready.

It’s really, really expensive

…and that’s an understatement. We’re talking around £45,000 per kilo. ‘It’s piece makes it precious, so it is used sparingly and varies according to quality.’

So what’s controversial?

When animals and beauty mix, it’s never nice. What’s misunderstood by many consumers is that the use of ambergris doesn’t affect the wellbeing of the sperm whale. And if you just can’t deal with where ambergris has come from, perhaps a more floral scent like Gucci Bloom for her (£52 for 30ml, £72 for 50ml, £99 for 100ml) or a fresh fragrance like Hugo Boss Iced (£45 for 75ml, £47.99 for 125ml) is for you.

The top ambergris scents

Our current faves? The new YSL Y for him, which combines ambergris with incense and geranium for a bold, masculine scent. We also love the blend of amber with passion fruit and magnolia in Abercrombie & Fitch First Instinct for her (£35 for 30ml, £50 for 50ml, £68 for 100ml). Mmm.

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Images: IStock, Shutterstock

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