Many high-end perfumes use a special ingredient called ambergris. It adds a scent note of its own, but also helps other scents last longer and stay suspended in the air. This elusive ingredient is expensive, costing as much as $7,000 per pound. According to Insider, a group of fishermen once landed a 280-pound chunk of the stuff while out at sea. It netted them a cool $1.5 million (pun very much intended).
What is ambergris? It’s whale vomit. Or more specifically, it’s whale vomit that happens to be expelled through sperm whales' butts.
Ambergris is what’s left over when a whale eats a lot of squids. The squids' beaks--along with fatty substances that the whale’s stomach secretes to protect it from those pointy beaks--form a giant clump inside the whale’s body, which the whale eventually expels. Ambergris floats to the surface, where lucky ambergris hunters scoop it up and sell it to perfumers. Insider reports that only about 1% of sperm whales produce it, thus the rarity and high price tag.
Ambergris looks exactly how you’d expect whale vomit to look. It’s a blackish mass of goo and bones. Apparently, it has a fecal smell when the whale first produces it, but this fades to a musky, rubbing alcohol smell as a wad of ambergris ages. Perfumers value extracts of ambergris as a musky base note for their perfumes, as well as for the extracts’ ability to modulate and enhance other scents.
Ambergris has been used for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that people discovered it comes from whales. Because whales basically poop/vomit ambergris out, using it isn’t directly harmful to them. Still, exploiting an endangered species for any commodity is dubious. It’s possible people could kill endangered whales, mistakenly thinking they’ll find valuable ambergris within them.
Technically, no one needs to use ambergris at all. According to the Smithsonian, synthetic ambergris has existed for decades, and most perfumers use lab-created versions today. Still, people have a deep-seated affection for the real thing (some even used to go as far as eating ambergris as a delicacy) and a few holdout perfumers still use real ambergris instead of the synthetic kind.
Want to spray a little whale vomit on your body before your next night out on the town? Most perfumers won’t share their ingredient list, so it’s hard to confirm how many perfumes have ambergris in them today. Chanel #5 was once rumored to contain ambergris, but given its price point, the perfume almost certainly uses a synthetic version today. One exception to the secrecy? Famed perfumer Roja Dove has confirmed that he uses real ambergris in some of his scents. The bad news? Three bottles from his collection will set you back $1,575.
If you can’t afford that, you’ll have to live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether your perfume contains real-deal whale vomit or a synthetic version. The next time you’re walking on a beach and find a big blog of yucky-smelling gunk, though, pause for a moment. If you find the next big trove of ambergris, Dove and his ilk will still pay you millions for it.