Ambergris…Squid Beaks…and Moby Dick!

I say, that the motion of a Sperm Whale’s flukes above water dispenses a perfume, as when a musk-scented lady rustles her dress in a warm parlor.—Moby Dick, Chapter 92.

This story had me as soon as I turned on nbc.com. A boy found a huge lump of ambergris on the shore in England. It looks like a hunk of bread and is worth a fortune! Ambergris is a rare perfuming ingredient which smells like rubbing alcohol without the volatility. It is thought to be a waxy secretion from the bowels of the sperm whale which protect the walls of their intestines from the beaks and sharp parts of their main food and nemesis, the giant squid. Ambergris is known for a high keyed and long lasting musk-like character. You will probably never handle it in your lifetime but there are simulations which come very close to the real thing. Karanal is one of them but there are others, more natural choices being cypress oil used with patchouli in the proper proportions, and some use labdenum. I have used quite a few of these simulations in my work and they are exquisite. It is a clean but sensual smell, and if properly done (and this is difficult) the animalic side of it all is preserved and served up to your nose in the nicest possible way.

An entire book has been written on the subject, and I am going to get it, of course. Floating Gold is the title and I am sure that it mentions Herman Mellville’s observations on ambergris, too. If you are a fan of perfumery, don’t miss reading Moby Dick; it’s a masterpiece of story telling. Some of the best parts are found in Mellville’s recounting of what life was like on a whaling vessel.

Sometimes, when you are a perfumer, you take an element and you use it as a central theme for the rest of the blend. It is the star and the other parts are bit players who are there only to enhance the main character. I believe a good example of this is Joy by Jean Patou which dances around jasmine in the most sinuous way. I have showcased the spirit of ambergris most notably in my perfume, Fascinator. Everything which went into that blend was there to compliment the divine smell of ambergris and ambergris is so agreeable that it consorts with a great many other wonderful accords and essences to fabulous advantage.

I just do envy that little boy, though, and mostly because he got to actually smell real ambergris. What a treat!

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