Ambergris is a waxy substance that is regurgitated by the Sperm Whale. It is thought that the whale’s body produces ambergris to protect its digestive system from the sharp squid beaks, coating indigestible materials and lumping them together until they can be expelled.
It can also be referred to as grey amber, not to be confused with the golden colored amber made of fossilized tree sap. A rather unusual substance, ambergris has been used by humans for thousands of years. The most complete history of ambergris I have ever found is located on the summary page of Ambergris Pathfinder, and I highly recommend looking into it as well as it’s scope and dictionary pages. I was surprised to find out the Chinese thought it was the ‘droolings of dragons’ and that the ‘West’ thought it came from things like ‘bird droppings’, while the Arabs thought it flowed into the ocean from streams.
Once upon a time, people from around the world used Ambergris for many different things: the Greeks added it to wine, Europeans in the Middle Ages used it for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and to ward off the Black plague (and anything else they could think of I am sure), the Egyptians used it as incense, it has been used by bartenders and cooks and has been a popular dish served with eggs.
History seems to show that people didn’t know what it was but they were perfectly willing to eat it.
The most famous use for it was (is) perfume. It is good at holding a scent (phew!) once it has been properly treated Not many perfume makers use it anymore as synthetic fixatives are cheaper and more redily available, and, for a while it was illegal to trade in ambergris due to efforts to preserve the whales. Although now, if you find some on the beach, it is legal to sell it. On the off chance that happens to you, or if you want to see a guide to identifing ambergris from those other smelly lumps you found on the beach, you can check out this place that actually buys it if you have it.
Once upon a time, finding a lump of ambergris was akin to finding a lump of gold (well, it didn’t pay as well as gold, but it was like finding money on the ground anyway). Herman Melville even named chapter 92 of Moby Dick “Ambergris” and included intrigue about making money off of it. The largest lump ever found was just over 1,000 pounds. That’s a lot of vomit.