Ambergris has played a significant historical and cultural role in the perfume industry, primarily due to its unique and highly prized olfactory properties. Here are some of the contributions of ambergris to the perfume industry:  

  1. Fixative Properties: Ambergris has the remarkable ability to act as a fixative in perfumery. A fixative is a substance that helps preserve the fragrance of a perfume, allowing the scent to last longer on the skin. Ambergris can help stabilize and enhance the other aromatic compounds in a perfume, prolonging its scent and making it more long-lasting.   

  2. Scent Enhancement: Beyond its fixative qualities, ambergris is known to enhance the overall aroma of a perfume. It has a complex, sweet, and animalic scent that can add depth and complexity to fragrances. When used in small quantities, it can subtly modify and improve the character of a fragrance. 

  3. Aphrodisiac Properties: Ambergris has been traditionally associated with aphrodisiac qualities due to its intriguing and alluring scent. This reputation has led to its inclusion in many perfumes designed to be seductive and sensuous.                                                                   John Singer Sargent, Fumée d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris) 1880

  4. Historical Significance: Historically, ambergris was highly valued and sought after in the perfume industry. Its rarity and unique properties made it a symbol of luxury and sophistication. It was a coveted ingredient among perfumers and was used in some of the most famous fragrances in history.  

  5. Modern Alternatives: While ambergris was widely used in perfumery in the past, it has become much less common due to conservation concerns. The use of natural ambergris is restricted in many countries to protect whales, as it is produced by the sperm whale. In modern perfumery, synthetic and plant-based alternatives are often used to replicate the fixative and olfactory qualities of ambergris. 

  6. Niche Perfumery: Despite its scarcity and the use of alternatives, some niche and high-end perfumers continue to incorporate natural ambergris in their fragrances for its unique character and its association with traditional perfumery. 

It's important to note that the use of natural ambergris in perfumery is now subject to strict regulations and international agreements due to the protection of endangered species. In response to these concerns, modern perfumers often use synthetic substitutes that mimic the properties of ambergris while ensuring ethical and sustainable practices in fragrance production.

Picturing Scent : The Tale of a Beached Whale

What can visual art teach us about scent, stench, and the mysterious substance known as ambergris? Lizzie Marx follows a “whale-trail” across history to discover the olfactory paradoxes of the Dutch Golden Age.

Jan Saenredam, Beached Whale at Beverwijk, 1602 

Foul Omen

During the seventeenth century, whales, of various species and sizes, were washed up on the shores of the Netherlands. Sometimes the creatures were already seized by decay; other times, they were beached alive, bellowing deafening groans while being crushed by the sheer weight of their own bodies. While they decomposed, gases would build up, sometimes culminating in a fetid explosion. If the tide did not sweep away the whale, a long and arduous process followed, in order to break down the mass and clear away the site.  
The colossal creatures attracted onlookers who were fascinated by the spectacle, and among the throng were artists, who, armed with drawing requisites, recorded what they saw, and what they smelled. Jan Saenredam depicted a sperm whale that beached on December 19, 1601. The whale is stranded on its side, showing its underbelly to the coast. Hordes of visitors congregate around the swollen cadaver and clamber over its body to inspect it. The descriptive border further details the state of the whale, picturing its gaping mouth on the left, and its back on the right, which has been split open, pouring out tresses of entrails. Positioned near the whale’s mouth, Saenredam pictures himself recording the cadaver on a sheet of paper flapping in the coastal winds. At the scene’s centre is Count Ernest Casimir of Nassau-Dietz, military leader and nephew of the stadholder Prince Maurice of Nassau. In his left hand is a lavish tasselled handkerchief, elevated to his nose to block out the stench.
The Latin verses that foot the print, written by the Dutch writer and poet Theodorus Schrevelius, evoke the fetor, reading:
Its formlessness, its opening running deep into its innards,
And its mouth, from which fluid and great quantities of blood flow.
In addition to the entrails that are pictured tumbling out of the whale’s mouth and back, the print exudes a foul atmosphere. Faced with the whale’s pervading stench, the Count’s handkerchief appears futile.  

Detail from Jan Saenredam, Beached Whale at Beverwijk, 1602. Depicted is Saenredam himself sketching the whale (left), tumbling entrails, and a handkerchief to block the stench held by Ernest Casimir of Nassau-Dietz (right)  

Great fortune came to those who discovered ambergris. Georg Eberhard Rumphius, a botanist working for the Dutch East India Company (VOC), describes encountering an unimaginably large piece in his book on natural history. Towering at nearly six feet, the lump was acquired by the Amsterdam chamber of the VOC in 1693 from the King of Tidore (the Moluccas), fetching an estimated 116,400 gilders, roughly €1.13 million today. The accompanying illustrations make no allusions to its potent fragrance, but they keenly observe the ambergris’ craggy, marbled, sinuous topography.

One of the most beguiling pieces of plague protection is the pomander, a pendant that held fragrance. The name comes from the Latin pomum ambrae, apple of ambergris, as a primary component in the pomander’s composition was the sperm whale’s perfume.

The potency of ambergris was thought to make it resistant to maladies. Early Modern medical theory asserted that while malodorous matter could harbour disease, fragrant substances could protect the body. Ambergris is included in incense recipes to fumigate the home, and added to decoctions of sweet waters, to rid the body of pestilence.