8-year-old Brit finds $65K piece of ambergris

September 3, 2012 • 10:25 am

What is ambergris? Well, it’s not exactly “whale poop,” as it’s often described. But while we know that ambergris is an exudate of sperm whales, it’s still not clear exactly what it is, or even which end it comes out of. It’s a waxy substance that is excreted or vomited by whales, and may be an intestinal defense used to coat indigestible substances like squid beaks, since such beaks often found encased in the ambergris. Recent thought is that most ambergris is pooped out, though some may derive from vomit. The fresh substance, which is buoyant and soft, apparently has a repulsive dung-like odor, but it hardens as it ages, acquiring a waxy texture with an odor many find fragrant. Ambergris washed up on beaches can be decades old.

The stuff is so valuable because it’s used as a fixative in expensive perfumes.  Now that we know most of its chemical composition, it’s been largely been displaced by synthetic materials, but here, from Wikipedia, are some chemicals in natural ambergris:

It takes various forms and colors, and you can see some of that variety at the Ambergris page.

The relevant news here is that an 8-year-old British lad, Charles Naysmith, found a 6.5-pound piece of ambergris while walking on the beach in southern England, and the stuff, at $10,000 a pound, is worth $65,000. Here’s Charles with his find, and some information reported 3 days ago by ABC News:

Kemp [author of a book on ambergris; see below] said that each piece smells a bit different, and luxury perfumers say that the smallest amount makes the biggest difference to a given fragrance.

“One drop of ambergris can change a perfume,” Claire Payne, an aroma therapist and perfumer told ABC News. “It’s what we call an animalic smell, different to the citrusy or fruity scents. It’s like musk, and we use it in several of our fragrances,” she added.

Ambergris has a scent all its own—derived from its chemical component ambrein—that it imparts to popular perfumes such as Chanel No. 5. It’s often described as an odd, a fragrant in fact, mixture of tobacco, rotting wood and even furniture polish, in high demand by perfume makers because it prolongs a perfume’s scent. Roja Dove, the so-called King of Fragrance and one of the most knowledgeable people in the world when it comes to perfume, uses ambergris in a signature scent called Scandal Pour Homme that sells in luxury stores for $280 per 100ml bottle. Adrienne Beuse, the owner of one of the only international trader of raw ambergris in New Zeland, told Bloomberg Businesweek that it’s one of the few recession-proof commodities: “If I have the supply, I’ll always be able to sell it,” she said.

What’s young Charles going to do with his dosh? Something nice:

Alex Naysmith said that his son wants to use the money from his lucky find to build some kind of animal shelter. “He’s enjoying the attention he’s been getting, but I doubt it’ll last. He has a club in school that he started to look after animals, and would like to keep going with that.”

A bit more about the ambergris trade from Bloomberg Businessweek:

Like truffle sourcing, the ambergris trade is shrouded in secrecy. Chris Kemp, a neuroscientist from Grand Rapids, Mich., spent years investigating the ambergris business, which he documents in his book, Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, to be published by the University of Chicago Press this May [JAC: it’s out now; you can buy it here.] “If you believe what you read in the media,” he says, “you’d think ambergris is something that people just find by accident.” The truth, he claims, is far more clandestine. “There’s a whole underground network of full-time collectors and dealers trying to make their fortune in ambergris. They know the beaches and the precise weather conditions necessary for ambergris to wash up on the shore.” And when whale-poop gold is on the line, he says, “it can get violent.”

11 thoughts on “8-year-old Brit finds $65K piece of ambergris

  1. Cool, weird stuff. Those chemical structures look (to me) like cholesterol fragments, so my guess for the origin would be the liver, via the gall bladder and bile duct. If it’s true that chunks can be regurgitated, that also makes sense since the bile duct opens into the very first section of intestine, from which bile colud, I guess, back up into the stomach.

  2. Don’t worry – the Japanese are continuing their scientific studies of whales. No doubt they will determine the source of ambergris in their quest to determine which whales make the best sashimi.

    1. I forgot to say – ambergris is also occasionally used in food for human consumption. I have no problem eating bee puke, but I don’t know if I’ll ever acquire a taste for whale poop.

  3. In Britain, Beached whales belong to the Crown.
    Rob Deaville, project manager for CSIP, said the whale parts would technically belong to the Crown.
    “They are classified as royal fish,” said Mr Deaville, who works for the Zoological Society of London.
    “A very ancient statute gave the head of the Crown the right to all the cetaceans stranded around the UK…”

    I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to call ambergris a “whale part,” so the lad is quite lucky not to have his find seized.

  4. That is a good tip especially to those new to the blogosphere.
    Brief but very precise information… Thanks for sharing this one.
    A must read article!

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