“It was unremarkable in appearance: a mottled white and gray color, irregular in shape, slightly flattened, and about the size of a football. But it had a strong door, which was unusual and difficult to categorize.”
If, like me, your knowledge on the subject of ambergris could sit neatly on the head of a pin, then molecular biologist and scientific columnist Christopher Kemp may have written the book just for you. ‘Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris’ offers a comprehensive guide to one of perfumery’s most rare and mysterious materials. A material that, unlike any other, must take a long voyage across wide oceans before the chance and pure luck of discovery allows its secrets to be unlocked.
Christopher Kemp presents an ode to ambergris and covers in rich detail the history and purpose of a material so unassuming in appearance that one could overlook it as nothing more than your average beach debris. But Floating Gold isn’t just about the history of ambergris, it is about the search, the hunt for something so rare that for thousands of years human beings have gone to extraordinary lengths to obtain it.
This search dates back thousands of years to the times where ocean voyage was awash with danger and plagued by violent sea-hardened criminals who plundered the ocean waves for the substance that was worth as much as, and perhaps even three times more than gold. Kemp also acts as tour-guide on his personal and somewhat less historic search for ambergris, a search that has him trawling untidy beaches and looking to the ocean for unusual, out of place areas of calm water.
US born Kemp, who lived temporarily in New Zealand, began his own search as the result of an incident that took place in 2008, that sparked his curiosity.
“On Saturday, September 20, 2008, the excitement was beginning to grow on Breaker Bay, near Wellington, New Zealand...a crowd had gathered to investigate a strange object that had washed up ashore during the night. It was large...and weighed and estimated thousand pounds or more. No one had seen it arrive. It was just there on the sand.” As more and more people arrived to see the curiosity, news channels started appearing.
“I’m pretty sure this is Ambergris” someone declared. From then on, the locals appeared with shovels or just broke bits off. A small lump, could after all fetch hundreds of dollars. As it turned out, the material, the colour of ‘dirty snow’ turned out to be lard, probably something that had escaped from a barrel from a ship. But Kemp couldn’t get the incident out of his mind. Turing to the internet he found there was surprisingly little information on ambergris:
“As a scientist, I’m used to being able to access information when I want it. From my desk I can download millions of scientific articles with the click of a mouse. When I first heard about the mysterious object on Breaker bay, I went online and immediately, thinking I’d learn everything I needed to know about ambergris in a few minutes. But I failed. In fact to begin with I found almost no useful information at all – just a handful of esoteric scientific papers and medical textbooks, most of them published in the 18th century. They were full of contradictions and inconsistencies.” It was obviously the scientist in Kemp that decided to put this right.
“Ambergris begins its long journey in darkness” he says “beneath several hundred tons of seawater, in the warm and cavernous hindgut of a sperm whale”
The story of ambergris starts with the Sperm Whale, a beast that is as mysterious as the precious amber that it emits. This humble creature with its four stomachs feeds on thousands of squid, digesting everything but their mouthparts or ‘beaks’, eye lenses and pens (a hard “quill like” internal organ). Kemp dispels the myth that ambergris is nothing more than whale vomit, for there are a number of “complex pathologies” required for ambergris to form, he explains: “occasionally, the mass of squid beaks and pens make its way through each of the whale’s four cavernous stomachs and into its looping convoluted intestines. Once there, it can become ambergris.” The rarity of such a process contributes to the myth of ambergris.
“Like wine in a bottle, ambergris slowly matures at sea.”
But the Sperm Whale is only half of the ambergris story, for once it is unleashed into the ocean the “black and viscous” material must make a voyage across a vast body of ocean before it fully develops into the substance that we know to be ambergris. As Kemp puts it “this journey cannot be substituted” for the years rolling around in the surf and baking in the sun are essential for developing the odour, an odour that canlast for up to 300 years.
“There is a randomness and unpredictability to a journey like this, it is unknowable.”
Left: Anton van Helden, marine mammals collection manager at Te Papa, with a large piece of ambergris in the museum collection. Right: Mike Hilton, in his office, with several pieces of Stewart Island ambergris.
Coming in at low tide to land on Doughboy Bay, on the remote west coast of Stewart Island.
A piece of ambergris, in Department of Conservation ranger Simon Taylor's hand, which had washed ashore on Doughboy Bay.
A piece of ambergris weighing almost two-and-a-half pounds in the Auckland War Memorial Museum collection, found at Ruapuke Beach, near Raglan in February, 1992.
Ambergris collected by J. Henry Blake and donated to the Department of Mammalogy, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.
The history and science of ambergris aren’t the only key themes in the book, Kemp’s personal search for ambergris plays a predominant part and it takes him across miles and miles of beach, leads him to finders, traders, beach mafias and key players within the international perfume industry. His struggle to find ambergris is evenly matched with his struggle to get information from people involved with ambergris, the trade of which is still very much a secretive world and the citizens of this world know the importance of keeping silent. You cannot help but root for him along the way.
“It is mainly used by well-known brands like Chanel, Guerlain, but they will never buy from a finder. They will buy from a specialist.”
When Kemp does in fact manage to find people who will talk to him about this secret world the results are enlightening and make for possibly the most fascinating parts of Floating Gold, for it is the relationship between ambergris and the perfume industry that is truly interesting. The key question that many perfume enthusiasts will have: “is ambergris still used in modern perfumes?”
The answers found by Kemp seem to be - ‘it depends who you ask’. Chandler Burr will tell you ‘no’, but one international trader will tell you that the big houses, including Guerlain and Chanel, still buy and use the top notch grade of ambergris and are “very selective”. The contradiction of information relating to the subject can be staggering at times but Kemp does well to inform the reader in a clear and totally matter-of-fact way that leaves no room for confusion.
Floating Gold details all you ever need to know about ambergris and more. It is an insightful and incredibly factual piece that covers the history, value and use of one of the most mythical substances known to man. As informative as it is, it can make for quite dry read and the author’s passion can sometimes be stifled by the sheer heft of the facts, but that is a minor niggle in what can be considered a fascinating and comprehensive guide.
Despite the occasional pitfall, ‘Floating Gold’ is a worthwhile read and will appeal to those who have a keen interest in the ingredients that go into the perfumes that they love and wear. It will also make essential reading for any would-be perfumer or anyone with a keen interest in the natural (and unnatural) materials that make up the perfumers palette. Let’s hope that ‘Floating Gold’ inspires others to put pen to paper and write about other key perfume materials.
Floating Gold, A natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris is published by The University of Chicago Press