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What is Ambergris?

Updated on November 30, 2016

Ambergris is a rare and valuable substance used in the manufacture of perfumes. It is formed in the intestine of the sperm whale, Physeter catodon. Sperm whales eat squid and cuttlefish, whose horny, indigestible beaks are often found in ambergris. From this it may be inferred that ambergris protects the whale's intestines against the sharp beaks. Ambergris is found floating at sea or on tropical shores, usually in small pieces; it is also taken from dead whales. When fresh from the whale, it looks like a thick black grease and has an unpleasant odor; after exposure to air and sun, however, it becomes light gray and hard, with a sweet musky fragrance.

Perfumers add ambergris to flower essences as a fixative, so that the delicate flower scent will last. Ambergris has been used since ancient times as a perfume, a spice for food and wine in the Orient, and a drug.

Ambergris consists of cholesterol (about 80 percent), fatty oil, benzoic acid, and an alcohol called ambrein. With heat it vaporizes or burns. Insoluble in water, it dissolves in hot alcohol, ether, chloroform, fats, or volatile oils.

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