AskDefine | Define ambergris

Dictionary Definition

ambergris n : waxy substance secreted by the sperm whale and found floating at sea or washed ashore; used in perfume

User Contributed Dictionary



From medieval ambrum "amber" or ambra grisea "grey amber".


Alternative spellings


  1. A solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish color, produced in the intestines of the sperm whale. It is used in perfumes.


  • 1851 — Herman Melville, Moby Dick
    And as for the other whale, why, I’ll agree to get more oil by chopping up and trying out these three masts of ours, than he’ll get from that bundle of bones; though, now that I think of it, it may contain something worth a good deal more than oil; yes, ambergris.


fatty substance


Extensive Definition

Ambergris (Ambra grisea, Ambre gris, ambergrease, or grey amber) is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. Ambergris has a peculiar sweet, earthy odor (similar to isopropyl alcohol); though it has now been largely displaced by synthetics, the principal historical use of ambergris was as a fixative in perfumery. The writer Herman Melville makes mention of ambergris in Moby-Dick. He discusses at length how ambergris was commonly found in dead whales floating in the South Pacific.


Ambergris occurs as a biliary secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale, and can be found floating upon the sea, or in the sand near the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of whales. Because giant squids' beaks have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the whale's intestine produces the substance as a means of facilitating the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have inadvertently eaten. Ambergris can be found in the Atlantic Ocean; on the coasts of Brazil and Madagascar; and on the coast of Africa, of the East Indies, The Maldives, mainland China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Molucca islands. However, most commercially collected ambergris comes from the Bahama Islands and Providence Island in the Caribbean.

Physical properties

Ambergris is found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, weighing from ½ oz (14 g) to 100 or more pounds (45.36 or more kg). When initially expelled by or removed from the whale, the fatty precursor of ambergris is pale white in color (sometimes streaked with black), soft in consistency, with a strong fecal smell. Following months to years of photo-degradation and oxidation in the ocean, this precursor gradually hardens, developing a dark gray or black color, a crusty and waxy texture, and a peculiar odor that is at once sweet, earthy, marine, and animalic. Its smell has been described by many as a vastly richer and smoother version of isopropanol without its stinging harshness.
In this developed condition, ambergris has a specific gravity ranging from 0.780 to 0.926. It melts at about 62 °C to a fatty, yellow resinous liquid; and at 100 °C it is volatilized into a white vapor. It is soluble in ether, and in volatile and fixed oils. Ambergris is relatively nonreactive to acid. White crystals of a substance called ambrein can be separated from ambergris by heating raw ambergris in alcohol, then allowing the resulting solution to cool.

Replacement compounds and economics

Historically, the primary commercial use of ambergris has been in fragrance chemistry, although it has also been used for medicinal and flavoring purposes. Ambergris has historically been an important perfume odorant and is highly sought. However, it is difficult to get a consistent and reliable supply of high quality ambergris. Due to demand for ambergris and its high price, replacement compounds have been sought out by the fragrance industry and chemically synthesized. The most important of these is ambrox, which has largely taken its place and is the most widely used ambergris-replacement odorant in perfume manufacture. The oldest and most commercially significant synthesis of ambrox is from sclareol (primarily extracted from clary sage), although syntheses have been devised from a variety of other natural products, including cis-abienol and thujone. Procedures for the microbial production of ambrox have also been devised.
Raw ambergris fetches approximately US$10 per gram (as of 2006), with much higher prices possible for particularly high-quality samples. In the United States, importing, buying, or selling ambergris — including ambergris that has washed ashore — was considered a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. However, in 2001 this ruling was overturned, and ambergris was deemed not to be a byproduct of the whaling industry, since the whale expels this substance naturally. There is currently no prohibition in the buying and selling of ambergris in the United States.

Historical and cross-cultural uses

Ambergris has been mostly known for its use in creating perfume and fragrance much like musk. While perfumes can still be found with ambergris around the world, American perfumers usually avoid it due to legal ambiguities. The ancient Chinese called the substance "dragon's spittle fragrance." Ancient Egyptians used burned ambergris as incense. During the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague. This was because the fragrance covered the smell of the air which was believed to be the cause of plague.
This substance has also been used historically as a flavouring for food. The favourite dish of King Charles II of England is said to have been eggs and ambergris. Middle Easterners have also used it as a spice for food and drinks.
Ambergris has also been used as a form of medical supplement. Middle Easterners have used it to increase strength and virility and to treat heart and brain disease. In some cases, people consider ambergris as an aphrodisiac. During the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.
Ambergris was also moulded, dried, decorated and worn as jewellery, particularly during the European Renaissance. It was often formed into beads.


ambergris in Arabic: عنبر
ambergris in Danish: Ambra
ambergris in German: Ambra
ambergris in Spanish: Ámbar gris
ambergris in Esperanto: Ambro
ambergris in French: Ambre gris
ambergris in Italian: Ambra grigia
ambergris in Dutch: Amber (potvis)
ambergris in Japanese: 龍涎香
ambergris in Norwegian: Ambra
ambergris in Polish: Ambra
ambergris in Portuguese: Âmbar cinza
ambergris in Romanian: Ambră
ambergris in Russian: Амбра
ambergris in Finnish: Ambra
ambergris in Swedish: Ambra
ambergris in Ukrainian: Амбра
ambergris in Chinese: 龍涎香

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

ambrosia, aromatic, aromatic gum, aromatic water, attar, attar of roses, balm, balm of Gilead, balsam, bay oil, bergamot oil, champaca oil, civet, essence, essential oil, extract, fixative, heliotrope, jasmine oil, lavender oil, musk, myrcia oil, myrrh, parfum, perfume, perfumery, rose oil, scent, volatile oil
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