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Ambergris & Ambrox: The Floating Gold & Its Substitute

AMBERGRIS, a word that evokes opulence and luxury, has a mysterious history. From the hidden depths of the ocean, this ultra-rare fragrant substance, often called “floating gold,” has fascinated naturalists, traders, and ultimately perfumers for centuries. To truly appreciate ambergris, we must delve into its origins, properties, and its transition to perfumery, alongside exploring sustainable, ethical SYNTHETIC ALTERNATIVES that strive to capture its essence.

 

 

Ambergris Sperm Whale

 

ORIGIN AND DISCOVERY OF AMBERGRIS

 

The word “amber” originates from the Arabic “anbar,” referring to fossilized tree resin, whereas “ambergris” is derived from French “ambre gris,” meaning “gray amber.” Ambergris is a solid, waxy substance formed in the digestive system of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) as a protective mechanism to ease the passage of indigestible items, particularly huge squid beaks. When irritated, the intestines secrete a dark substance that eventually hardens into ambergris and is expelled into the ocean. After years floating and oxidating in the ocean, it turns gray.

The discovery of ambergris dates back to ancient times, potentially as early as 1500 BCE, when fishermen in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Peninsula stumbled upon fragrant “rocks” washed ashore. Used for medicinal, aphrodisiac, and flavoring purposes over centuries, ambergris was initially thought to be hardened sea foam or a byproduct of underwater volcanoes. By the 9th century, Arab scholars and traders speculated that ambergris came from fish mouths. During the Renaissance, European naturalists specialized in marine biology encountered sperm whales, providing more evidence though the biological process remained unclear. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the whaling industry offered empirical evidence linking sperm whales to ambergris.

 

SCENT PROFILE AND TRANSITION TO PERFUMERY

 

Fresh ambergris appears dark-colored and emits a strong fecal odor. However, as it drifts in the ocean for many years, its primary fragrant compound, ambrein, undergoes a transformation influenced by air contact, sunlight, and heat – i.e. oxidation. This process contributes to its unique aroma evolution. With time, ambergris develops a rich, warm, and complex scent characterized by marine, balsamic, mineral, woody, and musky notes, slightly animalic, with tobacco and leather undertones.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, ambergris made its way to the perfumers of the French royal court, introduced by European explorers returning from Eastern voyages. Recognized for its uniquely sensual and alluring fragrance, ambergris became a prized raw material. Beyond its aromatic qualities, it was valued for its ability to elevate and enhance other perfume ingredients, providing stability and depth to compositions. Remarkably, ambergris served as a potent fixative. Due to its rarity and exorbitant price, ambergris has historically symbolized ultimate luxury and continues to hold this status today.

 

SYNTHETIC ALTERNATIVES

 

Ethical concerns, legislation, and the scarcity of natural ambergris have spurred the fragrance industry to develop synthetic alternatives aimed at replicating its scent profile and fixative properties in a more predictable, sustainable, and cost-effective manner. Several countries, including the USA, Australia, and India, have since the 1970s enacted laws prohibiting the commercialization and/or possession of ambergris, even if extracted from deceased sperm whales.

Firmenich pioneered research in this area, leading to the identification of ambroxide – one of the key components responsible for the odor of aged ambergris – in the late 1940s. The company successfully synthesized ambroxide from sclareol, a compound found in clary sage, and named it “Ambrox”. A more refined and potent version, Ambroxan, was subsequently registered by Henkel and began commercial use in functional fragrance in the 1970s. In 1993, Firmenich introduced Cetalox, a more transparent and creamier variation of Ambrox. In 2009, Givaudan developed a sustainable biotechnological process to produce Ambrox from sugar cane, naming it “Ambrofix”. In 2014, Firmenich launched an improved version, Ambrox Super.

While these synthetic compounds – Ambrox, Ambroxan, Ambrofix, and others – mimic the odor profile of natural ambergris, each has its own chemical structure derived through distinct methods. It’s notable that this family of aroma chemicals can be more expensive than many essential oils, demonstrating that synthetics are not necessarily cheap.

According to perfumer Geza Schön, owner of Escentric Molecules and composer of Molecule 02 (100% Ambrox), “the maximum percentage [of Ambrox] that can be dissolved in a fragrance compound is 13.5%; any more, and it begins to crystallise out of the solution; most fragrances with ‘amber’ contain 1-2%.”

 

Ambroxide Synthesis Sclareol

Conversion of sclareol to ambroxide

 

EXAMPLES OF FRAGRANCES RICH IN AMBROX

 

Overdoses of ambrox became popular in perfumery in the late 2000s. Here are a few examples of iconic fragrances that prominently feature variants of ambrox, mimicking the allure and properties of natural ambergris.

Hermès’ Eau des Merveilles, 2004 (ambery, woody, aromatic)
Frédéric Malle’s Outrageous, 2007 (citrus, floral, green)
Escentric Molecules’ Molecule 02, 2008 (pure Ambrox)
Creed’s Aventus, 2010 (citrus, fruity, smoky, mossy)
Juliette Has A Gun’s Not A Perfume, 2010 (pure Cetalox)
Dior’s Sauvage, 2015 (citrus, fougère, spicy, woody)
Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Baccarat Rouge 540, 2016 (floral, woody, gourmand)
Louis Vuitton’s Imagination, 2021 (citrus, green, spicy)

 

Ambrox Fragrances

 

TRIVIA

 

The sperm whale derives its name from a substance in its head known as spermaceti, which early whalers mistook for seminal fluid due to its resemblance to thick, waxy oil.

During the 17th to 19th centuries, the whaling industry played a pivotal role. Whale-derived products served various purposes, including whale oil for lighting and precision lubricants, and bones for construction and manufacturing.

The price of natural ambergris varies widely based on its origin, quality, and aging. Typically, a kilogram of ambergris costs between $20,000 and $40,000, but prices can exceed $100,000, surpassing even the value of gold. Some eager buyers mistakenly pay a generous amount of money for poor-quality ambergris, believing they are making a good deal.

In 2021, ambergris made headlines when fishermen in Yemen discovered a sperm whale carcass containing an estimated US$1.5 million worth of ambergris. This event revived the misconception that ambergris can be harvested from whales through killing them. In reality, only about 1% of sperm whales produce ambergris. And, as mentioned earlier, it takes years for ambergris to acquire its quality and commercial value while floating in the sea.

 

(text by Daniel Barros)

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DANIEL BARROS

DANIEL BARROS

Editor-in-Chief

DANIEL BARROS is Brazilian, based in São Paulo, and the author of  ‘1001 Perfumes: The Guide’. He has been collaborating with ScentXplore since 2021, contributing to content production and management, as well as organizing the annual ScentXplore People’s Choice Niche Fragrance Awards. In addition to his editorial responsibilities, Daniel is actively involved in mentoring niche brands and fragrance enthusiasts all over the world. Click here to send him a private message or report an error. Follow Daniel on Instagram @danielbarros_1001perfumes.

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