Bryan Nelson –
If you were asked to picture a treasure-hunting beachcomber, you’d probably imagine an old man wielding a metal detector and oversized earphones, shoveling for pennies left in the sand by careless tourists.
You probably wouldn’t think such an activity would make a lucrative retirement plan.
But leftover change and lost jewelry aren’t the only kinds of treasure that occasionally get buried on the beach. A small but elite group of professional beachcombing bandits know to look for something much more valuable: a solid, waxy, little-known “gemstone” called ambergris.
“It’s beyond comprehension how beautiful it is,” Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, Calif., and an ambergris enthusiast, told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
“It’s transformative. There’s a shimmering quality to it.
It reflects light with its smell. It’s like an olfactory gemstone.” It’s also poop. Sperm whale poop, to be exact. And finding just a pound of it could potentially net you as much as $10,000.
Sperm whales generate it in their intestines as a way to protect their bowels from indigestible sharp objects that occasionally get swallowed, such as giant squid beaks.
It gets passed as excrement along with the rest of the animal’s feces, or occasionally gets vomited back up if it causes a blockage — kind of like a sperm whale hairball.
Ambergris gets most of its value from the perfume-trading industry due to its unique, earthy scent.
For instance, in 2005, a 200-year-old fragrance originally made for Marie Antoinette that featured ambergris as a main ingredient was reproduced in limited quantities for $11,000 a bottle.
It has also been used in overpriced delicacies, such as the $4,700 mince pie recently created for charity by food designer Andrew Stellitano.