Perfume is expensive. But have you ever wondered what the most expensive fragrance ingredient is, all the way at the high end of the spectrum? You probably didn’t guess whale discharge – but that’s the answer!
The material is called ambergris, a hardened byproduct from the digestive system of sperm whales. When the whale eats indigestible objects like squid beaks, sometimes they accumulate and mold together in the digestive system where they are coated in grease and ejected as ambergris. The ambergris, giving off an incredibly strong fecal and musky odor, hardens as it floats in the ocean and often washes up on shore which is why it is often referred to as “floating gold”. Another reason why it’s called floating gold: because it is an extremely rare material to find and is found in less than 5% of all sperm whales, it can be worth as much as $40,000 per kilogram. That’s one valuable waste product!
The practical use of ambergris, other than making a fortune if you are lucky enough to find it, is with the fragrance industry. Ambrein, an oil extract and the main constituent of ambergris, is used by perfumers to attach the fragrance to the skin and make it last longer.
Fortunately, laws have prevented the hunting and exploitation of the endangered whales for a long time and synthetic alternatives to ambrein can also be produced, so ambergris isn’t putting any whales at risk. And though real ambrein in perfume is a rarity these days, some high-end European fragrances may still include it in their formulas.