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The Allure of Amber and Ambergris

Updated on January 4, 2017
Fumée d'Ambre Gris,              John Singer Sargent, 1880
Fumée d'Ambre Gris, John Singer Sargent, 1880 | Source

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.

"Sperm whale and Bottlenose whale",               Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935)
"Sperm whale and Bottlenose whale", Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935) | Source
Photographer: Peter Kaminski
Photographer: Peter Kaminski | Source
Resin on a fresh-cut tree
Resin on a fresh-cut tree | Source
Map of the Kaliningrad Oblast. Author: Andrein
Map of the Kaliningrad Oblast. Author: Andrein | Source
Author: Elisabeth
Author: Elisabeth | Source

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.

Sperm whale whaling, Currier & Ives, circa 1850s
Sperm whale whaling, Currier & Ives, circa 1850s | Source

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

The following article also discusses ambergris in world culture:


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.

Baltic amber. Author: Brocken Inaglory
Baltic amber. Author: Brocken Inaglory | Source
Dominican blue amber
Dominican blue amber | Source

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.

Author: Krzysztof
Author: Krzysztof | Source


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    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Mr. Kemp---I am honored that you visited my article and happy to promote such a great book! :-) ~Lurana Brown

    • profile image

      Christopher Kemp 4 years ago

      Thanks for the mention of my book!

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Nellieanna---I love travelling and wish I could do more...perhaps when my children are older! I have been to Scotland twice as a child (my father's parents both emigrated from there), then Egypt and Peru.

      I have always heard that scents work differently in combination with each person's chemistry. You must not have mainstream tastes to have had many things be discontinued on you, but that is probably a good thing!

      I like perfume very much but have usually used ones that were gifts, until a recent birthday gift certificate sent me to a department store and I decided to actually visit the perfume counter and choose one. I now have Givenchy's "Ange ou Demon Le Secret" which is described as having a "jasmine tea theme".

      I like astringent or light musky smells (like sandalwood), not too sweet or cloying....the grapefruit one you mentions sounds very interesting! Pomegranate also is slightly tart so I might like that type of fragrance too. This is fun! I never played with perfume much but I should. I like to burn incense and scented candles a lot....being surrounded by lovely smells adds a whole other sensory dimension of beauty. :-)

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 4 years ago from TEXAS

      That was my only trip abroad.

      True! Plus, fragrance smells a bit differently when it blends with one's own chemistry.

      The story of my life is to fall in love with a product and then it's taken off the market. Maybe my tastes aren't the wide run of the mill! haha.

      My more recent favorites are Jo Malone's Pomegranite Noir and Juicy Couture's signature fragrance, both rather light. Jo Malone's fragrances are all based on natural things. I rather like her Grapefruit scent, but have never bought it. The one I have has a few additives, I'm sure, - to add the "Noir" element to it.

      Then I was intrigued by one of those 'scratch-off' samples from a department store and ordered a small bottle: - 'Cassini' by Oleg Cassini. It didn't smell exactly like the sample but I've grown to like it. The only thing it has in common with other scents I've loved is that it doesn't give me a headache and seems to blend well with my own chemistry. . . . and makes me feel good.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      I have never been to London or Paris *sigh* but perhaps one day!I have truly enjoyed reading about these from you. It is a pity that finding the authentic scents is difficult now. Scent is such a unique sense that it cannot be easily replicated and it is almost impossible to imagine it solely from even the most detailed descriptions.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 4 years ago from TEXAS

      Yes, the Fille d'Eve bottle is both lovely and symbolic. My first brush with the perfume was when a sorority sister brought me a little apple-leaf-shaped bottle of it from a trip to Paris she'd taken. It soon became my signature, - until I could no longer find it about 10 or more years later.

      Both scents are lovely. I discovered Bal a' Versaille after reading a book mentioning it. Both may still be made and available in Europe, but any that might be sold here in the US would surely be knock-offs & inauthentic. I'm thinking that Harrods in London might have them. They did when my late husband & I were there in 1998. I'd love for you to get to smell them.

      I can think of no scent comparable to Bal a' Versailles, but Fille d'Eve smelled a wee bit like Mitsouko by Guerlain, which is still available here, - but just doesn't seem the same to me. I sniffed some at Neiman's perfume counter and it wasn't "it".

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Nellieanna--The Fille d'Eve bottle is exquisite and with such symbolism, the apple of the daughter of Eve! I wish very much to smell it, and the same for the Bal a Versaille. :-) The description of the Bal a Versailles scent composition is very appealing to me. The perfume locket sounds so romantic too. Thank you so much for sharing these!

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 4 years ago from TEXAS

      Fille d'Eve -

      Its bottle is lovely, an apple - by Lalique; I have one with perfume, but it's not still fresh. I paid a lot for it in about 1985 when it was featured as a rare perfume in a rare bottle at Neiman's. I got 2, actually and used one up - gave the bottle to a dear friend as a gift.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 4 years ago from TEXAS

      Fascinating! Of course, lockets with pictures were big in my heyday. And I had a "Bal a' Versailles" perfume pendant with some of the fragrance in solid perfume for inside, which wafted out the back through vents with a sublet reminder of it. On the front was the famous art which was on the bottles and boxes of the fragrance. It was my scent at one time, but like so many I have loved, it cease to be imported to this country. Oh well. I'll live. haha. Anyway - I'm not that sophisticated now.

      My most favorite all time was Fille d'Eve by Nina Ricci

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      I call it that although I doubt mine was ever used for such purposes! Here is the wikipedia description of this type of ring:

      "A poison ring or pillbox ring is a type of ring with a container under the bezel or inside the bezel itself that could be used to hold poison or another substance. They became popular in Europe during the sixteenth century. The poison ring was used either to slip poison into an enemy's food or drink, or to facilitate the suicide of the wearer in order to escape capture or torture.

      Rings like this have been used throughout history to carry perfume, locks of hair, devotional relics, messages and other keepsakes, so they have also been known by other names. Artists would paint tiny portraits of loved ones, to be carried in what was called a “locket ring,” which was popular during the Renaissance. By the 17th century, jewelers were creating locket rings in the shape of caskets which served as mementos for mourners. These were called “funeral rings.” Rings with compartments are also called “box” rings or “socket” rings."

      Mine is not nearly that old, but I love its tiny compartment!

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 4 years ago from TEXAS

      How interesting! A poison ring?

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Nellieanna---Thank you! Amber (without the bugs in it) does look good enough to eat! I love amber jewelry too...I have an antique "poison ring" with a tiny secret compartment and that's what inspired me to start researching it!

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 4 years ago from TEXAS

      You've certainly done your research!

      Fascinating facts about two substances which have long fascinated me, especially amber. Mother had amber beads when I was a kid and I swallowed one once. (big gulp?) Also my stepson brought me a certified amber pendant from a trip to Poland. It's lovely.

      Thank you for sharing your information!! I'm voting it up!

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      FullOfLoveSites--Thank you very much for reading and commenting! I wrote about these because they amaze me too. I had also never heard of blue amber until I researched this. Thank you for the insight about pearl and amber---I never thought about that, that they are both non-rock gems!

    • FullOfLoveSites profile image

      FullOfLoveSites 4 years ago from United States

      Who knows that a fecal matter can become a sweet-smelling perfume enhancer... like an ambergris? Mother Nature never fails to amaze us. She's ever so great.. :)

      Aside from pearl, amber is the only other "gemstone" that doesn't come from rocks. I've never seen a blue amber before. It's really amazing!

      Thanks for posting... they're indeed alluring. Voted up and interesting, awesome. :)