Last year when I visited Christian Dior in Paris, I was intrigued by one of the bottles in the brand’s perfume organ. The organ is used as a sales tool for consultants to identify the client’s preferred notes. One of the small bottles was labelled New Zealand Ambergris. I was intrigued for two reasons. My first reaction was one of surprise, that major perfume houses such as Dior, were still producing perfume using this rare material and the second was that the small country in which I grew up was supplying one of world’s most iconic names in fashion with perfume ingredients. I never heard of ambergris growing up in New Zealand, so I was surprised to learn it was found there. A surprise that later turned to reason, knowing that whale watching is one of the country’s tourist attractions. I asked the sales consultant if I could dip a paper touché in the ambergris bottle. The resulting smell was somewhere between wood and musk. Unconvinced I smelt unadulterated ambergris and I left Paris with a mental note; I wanted to find natural ambergris on my next visit to New Zealand.
Last week I was in Auckland on New Zealand’s north island. It’s been eight years since I lived in Auckland but it still holds a sense of home when I go back. I thought Auckland’s west coast might be a good place to begin my search for ambergris. I started on Piha beach, a 45-minute drive west of the city. West coast beaches have a moody temperament in comparison to the tranquil bays to the city’s east. The Waitakere ranges form a prehistoric backdrop cascading down to the beach’s edge. These ranges were formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago; volcanic sand and magnetic iron oxide ash give Auckland’s west coast beaches their distinctive black sand shoreline. I was advised to look for ambergris along the most recent high tide line. Due to the material’s weight, I was told it would usually sit ‘proud’ on the tide line instead of sinking into the sand.
I didn’t have any luck in Piha, but at least it was a beautiful late summer day to be walking along the beach. I drove from Piha to Karekare, an area used to film the beach scenes of Jane Campion’s movie, The Piano. In the native Maori language, Karekare means breaking surf or rolling thunder. The noise of the surf must have sounded like thunder to the local Ngapuhi tribe who inhabited the area centuries ago. The pounding surf and windy conditions make Auckland’s west coast a favourite location for surfing and perhaps beachcombers in search of ambergris. Favourable onshore winds and stormy seas will often help floating ambergris make it to shore. For this reason I was told there are more chances of finding ambergris in winter weather, especially following a storm. Again it was a nice afternoon walk, but I was unable to find any ambergris. I am told many collectors keep their favourite locations a secret and that collecting is in many ways a fine art.
With no ambergris in hand, I decided to consult the experts. North Islanders, Adrienne Beuse and her husband Frans, have created a company, Ambergris NZ Ltd. They assist in the identification, buying and selling of beach cast ambergris. Their clients are based all over the world. Adrienne and Frans live a few hours from Auckland so I was unable to meet them face to face. Instead they kindly sent some ambergris samples to Auckland and I talked with Adrienne on the phone a few nights later. Finally I had my chance to smell pure ambergris.
They sent me three samples to illustrate the difference in qualities existing in natural ambergris. Most perfume fans know that ambergris is a bi-product of the sperm whale but many aspects of the animal’s life are still a mystery to scientists. A true understanding of how the animal produces ambergris is one of them. It is generally agreed that the animal produces a substance that assists in protecting the animal’s digestive system from irritation. In one of the pieces I received from Adrienne there was what I assume is a small squid beak, one known irritant to the whale’s system. The animal expels this substance. Again, some debate exists around how this happens. Ambergris is often referred to as ‘whale vomit’ yet others will say the ambergris involves intestinal activity, meaning it has passed the stomach and could no longer be regurgitated; it could only be passed out through the rear. Adrienne’s three samples varied in age. The first was black ambergris. It was young and had a faecal scent. I had read others describe the scent of this type of ambergris as being consistent with that of animal dung. This is an adequate description, for me it reminded me of the scent you smell near the elephant enclosure of the zoo. Adrienne said that while black ambergris has its uses, it is a lower grade that high perfumery would generally not have any interest in. The second sample was grey ambergris, which has had more time to age or cure. This piece, as Adrienne describes it, is still a little bit ‘frisky’. But it also has begun to develop the character scent for which ambergris is valued. The third sample was white ambergris. Considered the highest grade of ambergris, pure white pieces will often spend years in the sea before they wash up onshore. Describing the scent is not easy. It is a complex smell and unlike any of the smells you encounter in everyday life. The synthetic compound Ambroxan (Firmenich trade it under the name Ambrox) is the closest comparison I can make. Costus root essential oil shares some of the animal qualities of natural ambergris. There is also a powdery musk and sandalwood like effect that adds to the overall complexity of the scent. This is definitely far from the scent of some synthetic perfumery materials such as Cedramber and Bois Ambrene Forte, often described as having ambergris qualities. Adrienne said it was important to realise that like all natural perfume materials, each piece of ambergris has its own story and scent. The animals, their diet, the piece’s age, how it was cured in nature and how it is tinctured all affect the ambergris’ scent. Perfumers looking to purchase a significant piece will normally ask for a sample and do extensive scent testing before committing to purchase. Adrienne gave an example of a tincture they made from a very earthy woody piece; the resulting tincture was surprisingly fresh and fruity. I was also surprised by how subtle the scent of ambergris is. I quickly realised that Christian Dior’s ambergris was not an ambergris tincture but a woody amber accord containing natural ambergris. Natural ambergris is a low odour substance and it is not highly diffusive. Traditionally it was only used as a fixative in trace amounts and not designed to make up the main accord of a perfume composition. Hence I think the magic of ambergris truly comes to life in conjunction with other materials in the same way traces of indole, civet or castoreum can be used to transform a floral note.
Finding sufficient ambergris supply is one limitation for modern perfumers. The other is scent variation. If you read any perfume forum you can see that perfume fans are very sensitive towards consistency. A perfume relying on ambergris could potentially change batch by batch, as different tinctures used would have small variations. Large producers would not be able to ensure a standard year after year. This is also the reason ambergris prices will vary greatly. Each piece must be analysed and priced accordingly.
I was ready to make a tincture from the pieces of ambergris. Adrienne suggested I do a fragrance test with the pieces so I can better acquaint myself with their scents. I do this by separating off a small piece, about 3 match-heads in size. Heating a needle in a flame I placed the red-hot needle flat against the ambergris shard for two seconds. The piece gives off a puff of smoke and almost immediately begins to liquefy. The resulting smoke carries the scent. The needle is returned to the flame to burn any residue. This is a more subtle scent; one that Adrienne advises may give a more accurate reading of the fragrance that will result when the piece is tinctured.
To create my tincture I grind the pieces down with a mortar and pestle. Adrienne says each perfumer will have their own process for making a tincture and that this is usually a guarded secret in the same way perfumers guard their formulas. It would be similar to asking Chanel what process they use to extract oils from their May roses. It is top-secret stuff! Adrienne and Frans kindly gave me some rudimentary advice on tincturing but also added that experts each have their own methods and opinions on the matter. Her instructions are basic to allow me to experiment, more advanced techniques would be employed by professional perfumers. After grinding the ambergris into a powder I blend it with perfumers alcohol. I heat the solution a little to assist the ambergris blend with the alcohol. Adrienne suggests doing this for a couple of hours with regular stirring. I decided to use a double boiling technique so the heat source is not direct. I bottle the resulting tincture and set it aside. Adrienne suggests an average six-month standing period is needed for maceration. Frequent agitation is recommended during this time. Once it is ready to use, the sediment can be filtered out or left in the bottle to enhance the tincture’s strength.
I will write an update later in the year once the tincture has matured. I am working on a rose soliflore perfume and hope this tincture will be suitable as a fixative. If not I can always purchase a ready-made tincture from Adrienne and Frans via their business website. If you are interested in ambergris I highly recommend you go to their website. They have been a great source of information, helping me to take away many of the myths that surround one of perfume’s more illusive ingredients. Their sister site also sells professionally made tinctures for perfumers who wish to use natural ambergris in their creations.
Thank you, Adrienne and Frans for helping me realise my desire to smell authentic ambergris and for openly providing me with so much information on the topic. This was greatly appreciated.
Readers interested in ambergris should also look for a book being launched May 15 2012 by author Christopher Kemp called Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, ISBN 13: 9780226430362