When Hurricane Sandy floodwaters forced the doors open to my perfume studio in Rockaway, Queens, it took with it almost all of my precious oils, unforgiving in its oceanic ferocity . So it was odd and quite wondrous that one single small glass cabinet remained unscathed amidst the debris, and that within in this cabinet, remained equally unscathed a bottle of pure ambergris. The irony was not lost on me.
This very elusive oceanic element was not to be returned to the waters, as happened to my roses and cedar wood, and all manner of olfactory material that was scenting the flood ravaged streets of my family’s neighborhood. I scrambled through the wreckage, gathered my precious bottle, wiped it down and opened it, desperately hoping no water had leaked in. It had remained sealed, and when uncorked, released the most amazing scent into the salted air.
Bottles salvaged from Alexis Karl’s studio after Hurricane Sandy
Ambergris, gifted by the sperm whale, tossing on waves, baked in the burning sun for years and years and finally washed ashore, holds a scent incredibly complex and mysterious. One senses salty waters, seaweed and all manner of organic, aquatic creature glowing with bioluminescence in midnight oceans. But there is something else…something dark and primordial that lurks within ambergris. It carries with it the scent of forests long covered by oceans deep, of wood resins floating on sea foam, of decaying leaves dissolving into brine. Ambergris smells of sweltering summer days by the beach and moon-cold winter evenings. It captures the evasive scent of rain and the beginning of snowfall.
Touching this oil to my skin, I think of ancient ritualistic fires, and of incense burned in the temples of now-forsaken gods. It is an olfactory conundrum, as it is everything at once- the essence of the ocean, of our own biological, humanistic beginnings. Perhaps that is why we are so obsessed with finding it. It brings us back to our own nature. It is far removed from our industrial, technologically inclined lives. It is natural, oceanic...the origin of all living things.
Ambergris is released from the intestines of the Sperm Whale, and left to float in the tumultuous waves for years before it hardens and its scent richens and lifts to its surface. It is this element of time, which brings olfactory complexity, and stirs the imaginations of perfumers and writers alike. Each piece of ambergris holds a life…a voyage on the waters, and as it tumbles year after year, riding wave after wave, its scent changes, the water itself embedding it with history. It is the rare, sacred gift of the whale, never to be taken from its body by force, and only for the lucky few to find on quiet beaches or lonely stretches of ocean.
As an artist, I find this rather Duchamp-ian in nature. I regal the cult of found object made object d’art. Ambergris is sculpturally odd and beautiful on its own, but when tinctured and made into oil, it is transformed into one the richest and most vibrant notes on a perfumer’s pallet. The ambergris’s necessary, natural extraction from the whale is one of the reasons I will use this oil. I will not do so with other animal essences extracted for perfumery’s sake, and do not encourage other perfumers or my perfume students to use extractions that cause harm to animals.
Alexis Karl’s studio after destruction from Hurricane Sandy
When the hurricane destroyed my studio, I was in the midst of creating a line of fragrances to correspond with my painter-husband’s art works for an exhibition entitled, Requiem For The Immortal. My husband’s Faustian characters cry for resurrection of the creative eternal- immortality through art, and this notion of immortality inspired me to explore essences that resonate with age, notes that when tried on the skin vibrate with life in the way few notes do. A few months before the flood, I created a fragrance to be the companion of the artist’s Faustian alter ego entitled, ‘1000 years after I am gone’.
This scent is a blend of amber from approximately 35 million year old fossilized Himalayan tree resin, beeswax absolute, agar wood, myrrh and of course ambergris. This was my first time actually using ambergris, and I was stunned at the result. The ambergris seemed to move in and out of the blend, weaving its way through incredibly dark amber, softening the myrrh and enhancing the agar. The fragrance clings to the skin; intermingling in such a way that it seems to come from within. It alters and changes, moves with liquidity, amber rising at times, agar lifting at others… but always the scent of ambergris underlying all.
I slathered ‘1000 Years After I Am Gone’ on my skin, and walked the two blocks to the ocean in the dying summer light. I have always been equally fascinated and fearful of the ocean. I swim in defiance of my own fears, accepting the power of the water and the dangers of what I cannot see. That end of summer day left the beach empty, abandoned life- guard chairs and the occasional beach umbrella stuck lopsided in the sand. I stepped into the surf, water colder than only a few days before, and made my way into the waves, letting them rock me roughly to shore again and again. I scrambled to my feet breathlessly, staring at a dark violet sky. The scent lifted about me, mingling with the salt on my skin, and mysterious scent of ocean waters. That was the scent at its most perfect…when the ambergris met the source of its own creation.
Atlantic Ocean, Rockaway Beach, New York
Animus Anima Animal Music Video photo shoot featuring perfumer Alexis Karl
Today I stand on that same stretch of beach in the freezing salt air, stunned by the anger of the ocean and winds. I take a dropper to my bottle of ambergris. I secure three large droplets of the viscous oil, and stepping to the shoreline still scattered with splinters of wood from destroyed houses and boardwalk, still laced with seaweed and twisted metal, lost toys and car parts; I drop the treasured oil into the foamy waves breaking on the shore. A gift, I think, as the oil disappears in the dark water, to appease this wild ocean. To thank the whale, to honor the ancient, primordial body and to cry, “Look what we have made from your gift! Pure beauty.”