- Education and Science
The Allure of Amber and Ambergris
Since times of antiquity, a substance ashen in color and waxen in texture would wash ashore tropical coasts from New Zealand to Brazil in rocklike masses, smelling exotically of musk and sea. It was called ‘anbar in Arabic, ambar in Middle Persian, and Crusaders brought back to Europe the word that became “amber” in English.
Between the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe, the term was borrowed to describe other mysterious objects that could be found on Baltic Sea shores, especially after storms: golden and translucent, these stones sometimes contained remains of plants or insects. The word “ambergris”, from the Middle French ambre gris (“gray amber”), was used to distinguish the original amber from this ambre jaune (“yellow amber”). Eventually amber came to refer to the yellow kind only, replacing its classical European name of “electrum”---which also applied to materials other than amber.
Despite different sources, they have enough in common to suggest association. Both can be melted down to a liquid state, both are used in perfume-making and folk remedies, both can be burned as incense, and both have always been highly valued, all the more so because they cannot be easily obtained.
Origins of ambergris
Ambergris gathers in floating lumps upon tropical seas and can be colored white, yellow, brown, gray, black or a variegated mix. Nicknamed “whale’s pearl,” it is an intestinal secretion of the sperm whale. It is not conclusively known why some---only 1-5%---of sperm whales produce ambergris, but its presence around undigested objects suggests a digestive purpose. It is now primarily thought to be excreted with fecal matter; it would also surface after the whale's death. When fresh, ambergris is dark and tarlike, but exposure to the elements has an ossifying, fading effect. It is flammable and can melt to an oily liquid or burn into a smoky vapor.
Origins of amber
Amber is tree resin that has been petrified over millions of years and often contains small or even microscopic fossils. It can come in a range of colors—white, yellow, brown, black, red, green, and even blue---and can range from opaque to transparent. The obsolete name of electrum derived from “elektron” in Greek---meaning “from the sun”---and illustrates not only amber’s typical golden color but also its ability to hold a charge, as with the related word “electricity”. Amber was known in Arabic as “kahraba”, from the Iranian Pahlavi roots “kah” (“straw”) and “rubay” (“attract”, as in electrically).
Amber can be mined from land deposits, the most prolific of which is the Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian enclave on the Baltic coast. The most abundant amber source in the world, Baltic amber, comes from prehistoric, sunken forests that have sent up honey-colored gems through the Baltic Sea for ages.Baltic amber is now also called succinite due to its identifying composition of succinic acid. Dominican amber, another subset, is known as retinite; this tropical kind yields the majority of transparent amber, more fossil specimens, and the rare blue amber type.
In their original forms, neither amber nor ambergris would suggest much marketability. But both have been prized possessions in world trade and culture.
Ambergris: usage and cultural lore
Ambergris has played an eminent role in perfume-making as a fragrance-enhancer and fixative to slow the rate of evaporation, though it has now been almost entirely replaced by synthetic ambergris. It also has been used as a spice in food and wine. It was known as “dragon’s spittle fragrance” in ancient China, was believed to ward off the black plague by Europeans in the Middle Ages, and has been attributed with aphrodisiac power as well as healing properties. A prize boon of the whaling trade and maritime cultures, it has become a target of modern conservation efforts for the now-endangered sperm whales.
Some popular anecdotes and cultural highlights of ambergris include:
-Marie Antoinette wore perfume using ambergris; the recipe was reproduced for a 2011 limited edition that sold for $11,000 a bottle
-Madame du Barry is said to have bathed with ambergris to attract Louis XV
-Charles II of England’s favorite dish was eggs with ambergris
-In Moby Dick, Herman Melville calls ambergris the “essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale” and describes such a whale being killed for it
-Ambergris currently is worth about $20 a gram, though its trade is forbidden in the United States by the Marine Mammal Act of 1972 and the Environmental Protection Act of 1973 and is discouraged internationally
Molecular biologist Christopher Kemp published a book on ambergris with the University of Chicago Press in 2012
The following article also discusses ambergris in world culture:
- Doctor's Review | Amazing ambergris
Why one man’s whale poop is another’s medical gold
Amber: trade and collections
Amber’s ability to preserve biological specimens has been a significant contribution to the fossil record, and its value in trade has kept these priceless pieces of natural history in currency. Amber has been used primarily for ornamental purposes, as a gemstone in jewelry or as adornment for weapons and cultural artifacts. The Baltic amber trade by ancient cultures has contributed to historical and archaeological knowledge of trade routes and cross-cultural exchange. The most elaborate displays of amber are often in private collections; many of these have been lost or dismantled, but several museums offer celebrated exhibits.
For a wide range of information on amber with links to additional resources on both amber and ambergris, visit:
The supply of natural amber is finite. Ambergris is produced by an endangered species. Synthetic substitutes of both exist, but the value of authentic, superior samples will likely increase over time. Both amber and ambergris captivate collectors with the prospect of a once-in-a-lifetime find…for these are true treasures that still come unpredictably with the tides and luck.