Ambergris is a waxy substance which forms naturally in the intestines of sperm whales. The world is directly taken from Old English, and it is French in origin. In Old French, ambre is “amber,” while gris refers to the color gray. It is also sometimes called ambra grisea, ambergrease, or gray amber, and it is quite valuable. Humans have been using ambergris for centuries, typically as a fixative in perfumes, although it has other uses as well. Pure ambergris can sometimes be found for sale, although it is more common as a product component, and it also periodically washes ashore on beaches around the world.
When ambergris is fresh, it is almost black in color, and very soft. It also has a strong odor, which some people do not find enjoyable. After it has oxidized and weathered in the ocean, sometimes for a period of years, the ambergris turns into a hard gray to yellow mass with a sweet, earthy odor. In addition to being used in perfumes, hard masses of ambergris have also been carved into jewelry, and the substance has also been used as a spice, especially in Asia.
It is believed that whales secrete ambergris to protect their intestines from sharp objects such as the beaks of squid. As these objects enter the intestinal tract, they are covered in a layer of ambergris so that they move smoothly through, without damaging the delicate intestines of their lining. The primary component of ambergris is ambrein, a fatty substance which can be isolated from ambergris through chemical treatment.
Lumps of ambergris vary widely in size, with large specimens sometimes having chunks of other biological material inside, such as large bones from animals that the whale has eaten. These chunks have historically been prized when they appear on seashores or are found floating in the ocean. Whale hunters also collect ambergris directly, by extracting it from the intestines of freshly killed whales.
Because ambergris is so valuable, some people refer to it as “floating gold” or “whale's pearl.” It is not as widely used in perfumes as it once was, thanks to the development of synthetics which can serve a similar function, but high-end perfumes continue to use it. As a fixative, it helps to slow the natural evaporation of the perfume. It also lends a unique and distinct scent which is an active component in the perfume. Vintage brooches and beads carved from ambergris can also be found, often in museums.