Enjoy this read and, as always, click the numbers in square brackets to check out all the references!
What is ambergris?
Ambergris is made in the gut of sperm whales. It comes in lots of different shapes, sizes, and even colours. These whales eat squid but they cannot digest the hard parts of the animal like beaks and pens (internal shells). Many whales vomit up these byproducts and some researchers believe that this vomit is what we find and use in the perfume industry [i].
Other scientists think that true ambergris comes from beaks that get stuck in the intestines. Over time the whale’s body will create a smooth lump of fecal matter and other substances around the beaks to protect the intestines and allow the whale to keep digesting food. Sometimes these masses pass out with feces but other times they can get so big that they result in the death of the whale. [ii]
Scientists think that less than 5% of whales actually die from this so if you find ambergris on the beach it likely didn’t cost any whale its life. [iii]
Why is it used in high end perfumes and other products?
Ambergris is used to extend the shelf life of products and adds a sweet and musky scent to perfumes.
The longer a lump of ambergris floats in the ocean, the more it oxidizes and generally the higher quality it is. This is because after years of floating the smell becomes sweeter and lighter. [iv]
Ambrein vs. Ambergris
Ambrein is an alcohol that has no smell and that gets extracted from ambergris. It is this part that makes perfume last longer. The quality of ambergris is based on how much ambrein is in it. White ambergris has the most and so is worth the most while black ambergris has the least. [v]
Synthetic chemicals are now used instead of ambrein in most products, except for high end perfumes. [vi]
Is it legal to buy and sell ambergris?
Yes and no.
Whales used to be widely hunted for their oil and for ambergris which severely impacted their numbers in the wild. Now they are internationally protected and so they cannot be hunted (but many still are illegally fished!). So if you are a fisherman you cannot go try to catch a sperm whale hoping it’ll have a hunk of ambergris in its guts.
However, if you find a lump of it on the beach that got there naturally you are usually allowed to collect it. [vii] Some countries ban any kind of ambergris trade under their whaling bans and so there can be grey areas in their laws about selling chunks found on the beach.
When in doubt google it!
Is it ethical to use perfumes that contain ambergris?
Hard to say.
If I were certain all perfume ambergris came from hunks found by fishermen and tourists on the beach then it would definitely be ethical. However I couldn't find any statements saying that companies track where they buy their ambergris from. This means it is possible that they are using ambergris sourced from illegally fished whales, at least in part.
So I'm not sure about this one, I can definitely say it is not vegan friendly though!
Recent ambergris chunks that made people rich:
2021: Thai fisherman finds lump of Ambergris worth £210,000 [viii]
2020: Taiwanese man fishing on the beach finds "stone" worth NT$6 million (US$210,000) [ix]
(see! 2020 didn't suck for everyone!)
2018: Man on a walk in Devon find Ambergris that could be worth over £200,000 [x]