Eric Spitznagel –
The dirty, lucrative business of the sperm whale excretion known as ambergris.
Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, Calif., is rarely at a loss for words when describing ambergris. “It’s beyond comprehension how beautiful it is,” she says. “It’s transformative.
There’s a shimmering quality to it. It reflects light with its smell. It’s like an olfactory gemstone.”
Ambergris, a waxy excretion formed in the intestines of sperm whales (thanks to their inability to digest squid beaks), is one of the most sought-after substances in the world.
Ambergris sells for roughly $20 a gram, gold for $30.
It has been used as a cure for pestilence, and, according to 10th century Muslim trader Ibn Hawqal, as an aphrodisiac.
In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville claimed that ambergris, “an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale,” was “largely used in perfumery, in pastiles, precious candles, hair powders, and pomatum.”
More recently, it has appeared in overpriced delicacies, such as the $4,700 mince pie created last month for charity by U.K. food designer Andrew Stellitano, and even more overpriced perfumes.
In 2005, a 200-year-old fragrance originally made for Marie Antoinette, which featured ambergris as a main ingredient, was reproduced in limited quantities for $11,000 a bottle.