The Magazine

Fortune’s Lump

The unlikely alchemy that leaves a scent.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By KATE HAVARD
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A man wanders along a beach, picking up smelly rocks and poking things with sticks. If one of the gray-green lumps he seeks happens to have just the right scent—of squid, musk, and fecal matter—it could change his life. Ambergris is a rare substance which has been used for centuries to make perfume. A little bit excrement and a little bit vomit, this “secretion” of the sperm whale is, ounce per ounce, as valuable as—often, more valuable than—the purest gold. Depending on the quality, a lump of ambergris the size of a potato is worth about $15,000.

Chanel No. 5

Rex USA / Courtesy Everett Collection

In Floating Gold, Christopher Kemp shows us the lengths to which humans will go to deck themselves in luxury. We hear of sailors who crawl, Jonah-style, into the carcass of a whale in order to rake through its bowels for ambergris, nearly suffocating in the process. Kemp also gives us a glimpse into the furtive, tight-lipped community of ambergris hunters, a territorial bunch who aren’t above settling turf wars by running down their rivals with a car.

The history is interlaced with Kemp’s own search for ambergris, a hobby that seems to suck him in and become all-absorbing. His pockets, his house, his car become full of various types of sea flotsam and jetsam he hopes will be identified as ambergris. One feels a certain sympathy for the author’s wife and child, who seem to get dragged along the frigid coastline for his numerous excursions. At one point, in a fit of excitement, Kemp grabs a gray-green, waxy rock that turns out to be a freshly deposited piece of seal dung.

We spend much of the story with Kemp on a New Zealand beach in the winter, picking through debris—dead seagulls, old sneakers, and clumps of dried algae—in search of the valuable whale secretion. And yet for all this absurdity, Kemp manages to infuse each windy walk on the shore with an air of true mystery. Each foray seems as if it could be the right one, and I found myself peeking at the end to find out whether or not he succeeds.

There is something strangely alluring about ambergris, this mysterious substance which promises money, power, fame, and sexual prowess (it’s an ancient aphrodisiac) to a select few, all the while reeking of excrement, death, and the chaos of the ocean. Its origins are largely speculative, and all that researchers know for sure is that it starts deep inside the belly of the sperm whale. These creatures consume mostly giant squid, whose beaks and other hard bits they are unable to digest. Though the whale periodically regurgitates these pieces, scientists believe that sometimes a mass of undigested beaks and bits will make its way to the whale’s lower intestines, where, like a grain of sand inside an oyster, the mass becomes coated with a mixture of feces and intestinal juices, hardening over time until it becomes like concrete. 

As the lump sits in the whale’s hindgut, it grows, gathering more and more layers of coating, like a tree “adding a new growth ring with each passing year.” Scientists continue to argue about the actual process of ambergris secretion—one possibility is that the ambergris grows inside the whale until it becomes so large that it causes a fatal rupture in the intestines. The whale’s massive carcass is then quickly ripped apart by aquatic scavengers, leaving the ambergris free to float to the surface, where it can drift at sea for as long as 80 years. Its texture is refined and smoothed by the currents until it finally dissolves or washes up on a beach and makes someone a small fortune. 

Today, most fragrances use a synthetic alternative to imitate ambergris’s signature scent and fixative properties. The French ambergris trader Bernard Perrin attributes the decline in ambergris use to “The Americans, .  .  . ecology, Green Party, blah blah blah,” and the desire to keep the price of perfume low. Now, only the haughtiest perfume houses—Chanel, Guerlain, Dior—continue to infuse their products with what Herman Melville called that “essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.” 

You might think that the high fashion powers that be would turn up their noses at the incongruous origins of their Chanel No. 5. But traditionalists assert that there is no substitute: As Perrin puts it, ambergris has a certain je ne sais quoi: “Ambergris, it’s like your wine, you have different wines, you cannot compare all Bordeaux to cheap wines from .  .  . I don’t know.” Yet even someone without Perrin’s subtle sense of smell can appreciate ambergris for what it undoubtedly is: a potentially life-changing goldmine. 

That is what the people of Bolinas Beach, California, undoubtedly thought when an enormous “cheesy lump” of unknown substance washed ashore in 1934. The town, ravaged by the Depression, declared a holiday, closing schools so that children could go and collect handfuls of ambergris to bring back to their families. Collectively, the town gathered about 300 pounds of the substance, then valued at $28 an ounce. Young men proposed marriage to their sweethearts; fathers told reporters that they would be able to educate their children. Yet in a week, lab results showed it had all been a dream: The “cheesy lump” was nothing but congealed sewer cleaner, washed in from nearby San Francisco.

Kemp is at his best here, illustrating ambergris’s effect on those who seek it and those who find it. One woman tells the story of how she and her husband discovered a mass of ambergris valued at approximately $250,000. But as they sat at home, discussing what to do with the substance and waiting out the hightest bidder, they noticed something alarming: the lump was losing weight. Their small fortune was quickly evaporating. The woman implies that they soon sold the ambergris to the first bidder they could find, but never says how much ambergris they had lost or how much the remains had been sold for. 

Not only is ambergris incredibly difficult to find, it is apparently ephemeral: When grasped too tightly, it slips away. But as long as there are sperm whales, there will be ambergris. Money, of course, does not grow on trees, but ambergris grows inside whales—and one never knows where it might turn up.

Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.