Friday, January 27, 2006

What Is Ambergris?

AMBERGRIS [ambergris]: a waxlike substance originating as a morbid concretion in the intestine of the sperm whale. Lighter than water, it is found floating on tropical seas or cast up on the shore in yellow, gray, black, or variegated masses, usually a few ounces in weight, though pieces weighing several hundred pounds have been found. Ambergris has been greatly valued from earliest times. It is now used as a fixative in perfumes. Its active principle is ambrein, a crystalline alcohol with the empirical formula C 30 H 51 OH.

The January 24, 2006 report in the BBC of a 14.75 kg lump of it discovered by an Australian couple while walking on the beach got me curious to find out more about this highly valued (and considered very rare) substance.

Some reports indicate that top perfume makers pay as much as 65 US dollars per gram of ambergris ...other reports say it's also used as an additive for flavoring cigarrettes (unconfirmed) ...still other reports indicate its use in some medicines ...and yet other reports indicate its use as a flavoring in foods and beverages.

In ancient times, animal substances like musk, castor and ambergris were particularly expensive, as they had to be imported from China, Russia, the Persian Gulf and India. Not only were these fragrances supposed to attract the female sex; they were also believed to have therapeutic properties. For example, 17th-century physician Hasan ibn Riza Shirvani believed a dab of ambergris could strengthen the brain and heart.

"Ambergris, when taken from the intestinal canal of the sperm whale, is of a deep grey color, soft consistence and a disagreeable smell. On exposure to the air it gradually hardens, becomes pale and develops its peculiar sweet, earthy odour. In that condition its specific gravity ranges from 0-780 to 0-926. It melts at about 62 C. to a fatty, yellow resinous-like liquid; and at 100 C. it is volatilized into a white vapour. It is soluble in ether, and in volatile and fixed oils; it is only feebly acted on by acids. By digesting in hot alcohol, a substance termed ambrein, closely resembling cholesterin, is obtained, which separates in brilliant white crystals as the solution cools."

"The use of ambergris in Europe is now entirely confined to perfumery, though it formerly occupied no inconsiderable place in medicine." In minute quantities its alcoholic solution is much used for giving a " floral " fragrance to bouquets, washes and other preparations of the perfumer. It occupies a very important place in the perfumery of the East, and there it is also used in pharmacy and as a flavouring material in cookery, as reported by this source.

In Chinese medicine, it has been reported that it is still in use for urinary tract infections, urinary stones, heart disease and infant convulsions, however this information has not been confirmed by us.