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Ambergris is a waxy, aromatic substance historically used in the production of high-quality perfumes. As ambergris is naturally produced in the digestive tracts of sperm whales, it is both rare and difficult to find, and is therefore extremely expensive. It is occasionally discovered in lumps floating at the surface of the ocean or washed up on shore. It adds a unique scent to perfume and acts as a fixative, making perfumes last much longer than their volatile scent compounds would otherwise allow. While synthetic fixatives are widely used in modern fragrances, ambergris perfume is still highly prized.
Sperm whales secrete ambergris in their digestive tracts. Squid beaks are sometimes found embedded in lumps of ambergris, suggesting that the substance is produced to encase sharp objects eaten by the whale and protect the intestines as the objects are passed. Small amounts of ambergris are passed along with fecal matter, while larger lumps are expelled through the whale's mouth. Initially, ambergris is a soft substance with a strong fecal odor. After years of floating in the ocean, however, the substance cures into a hard, waxy lump with a much more pleasing aroma.
The production of ambergris perfume dates back to the 10th Century CE, when it began to be used in the production of liquid scents in the Near East. It served as a natural fixative alongside other expensive ingredients, such as musk or civet, until the early 1800s, when the first synthetic alternatives were developed. Ambergris has been highly valued throughout history, with prices ranging from three times its weight in gold to modern values of slightly less than gold.
Ambergris perfume possesses a unique quality of scent that is generally described as smooth, earthy, and organic. As it is used only in trace amounts, a single lump of ambergris may provide the basis for a huge amount of perfume. It is a highly efficient fixative, and trace amounts of ambergris can retain their scent for a period of months in the open air.
Beginning in the 1970s, many countries banned the production of ambergris perfume, due to the endangered status of sperm whales. In the United States, ambergris is still an uncommon ingredient in perfume due to the laws regulating the sale of products derived from endangered species. It is, however, legal to produce ambergris perfume in most of the world, under strict standards. These regulations ensure that all ambergris used in the production of perfume is found floating in the ocean or washed up on shore, and not removed directly from a whale.