How much is ambergris worth per pound

The title of this article is ambiguous. Further meanings are listed under ambergris (disambiguation).

The Ambergris or the Amber (Arabic) is a gray, waxy substance from the digestive tract of sperm whales. It was previously used in perfume making. Today it has largely been replaced by synthetic substances and is only used in a few expensive perfumes.


Historical drawing of a lump of ambergris from 1753
Real amber of a sperm whale

Ambergris is produced when sperm whales eat. The indigestible parts such as beaks or horned jaws of squid and octopus are embedded in ambergris. The exact cause of the development is unclear. The sperm whale may have a metabolic disease if it forms ambergris. According to another theory, the substance is used for antibiotic closure of wounds in injuries to the intestinal wall. The substance gets into the sea through vomiting, as excrement stones or through the natural death of the animals.

Previous ideas about the creation

There was speculation about the origin of ambergris as early as the 10th century. The Arab traveler Al-Masudi gave accounts of traders and sailors who claimed that ambergris grew like mushrooms on the sea floor. They are whirled up in storms and washed up on the coasts. Amber comes in two different forms, a white and a black. Al-Masudi also reported that at one point on the Arab coast on the Indian Ocean, residents trained their camels to look for ambergris.

Al-Masudi's theory about the origin of ambergris was still supported six centuries later, for example by Adam Lonitzer. The one published in Leipzig in 1721 General Lexicon of Arts and Sciences describes the most likely explanation for ambergris as “earth pitch” that was washed ashore by the flood and hardened by the air and sea water.[1]

The idea that ambergris flowed from springs near the seashore also originated in Arabia. In the fairy tale Thousand and one Night After being shipwrecked, Sindbad stranded on a desert island, where he discovered a spring of smelly, raw ambergris. The substance flowed like wax into the sea, where it was first swallowed by huge fish and then vomited up again in the form of fragrant lumps that floated onto the beach. Even in ancient Greece, where ambergris was added to wine because of its supposedly alcohol-enhancing property, a source near the sea was assumed to be the place of origin of ambergris.

In China, amber was known as until about AD 1,000 lung sien hiang (Lóngxiánxiāng 龍 涎 香), as the "salivary perfume of dragons", as it was believed that the substance came from the saliva of dragons who slept on rocks at the edge of the sea. In the Orient, ambergris is still known by this name today and is used as an aphrodisiac and as a spice for food and wine.

In large parts of ancient and early medieval Europe it was assumed that real amber (yellow amber or Baltic amber, in ancient Rome as Succinum and in Greece as ἤλεκτρον (electron) and ambergris are of the same or at least similar origin. Presumably this idea goes back to the similarities of these two substances in fragrance, rarity and value as well as in external appearance and occurrence (on sea coasts). In early chronicles, however, a difference between amber and amber is already stated. Amber was then viewed either as the sperm of fish or whales, as the droppings of unknown seabirds (probably from an incorrect interpretation of the octopus beaks contained in the ambergris) or as large beehives from coastal areas, for example the ship's doctor Exquemelin reported in the 17th century:

“In these landscapes there are also many bees that make their honey on the forest trees, and so it is not uncommon for violent storms to force the wax together with the honey hanging on the trees towards the sea. (...) Which is probably quite believable, because this ambergris, when you find it, is still soft and smells like wax. "[2]

Marco Polo was the first chronicler of the Old World to correctly recognize ambergris as an endogenous substance in sperm whales after seeing sperm whales hunting squid off the Socotra Islands in the Indian Ocean. He also suspected that the ambergris was vomit from these whales in the depths of the sea.[Receipt?]

In 1783 the botanist Joseph Banks presented a work by the German doctor Franz Xaver Schwediauer, who lived in London, in which he described the errors that prevail in Western Europe about ambergris and the origin of this substance. He identified ambergris as a product of the often unnaturally distended intestines of sick sperm whales and associated the formation of ambergris with the beaks of octopuses, the main food of the sperm whales.


Fresh amber is soft and smells offensive. It is only through years or decades of contact with air, light and salt water that it acquires its firm consistency and its pleasant scent.

The gray and black ambergris played an important role in the manufacture of perfume. Due to the synthesis of this substance and the ban on trade in sperm whale products according to the Washington Convention on Endangered Species, ambergris is no longer valued, although it is still used in homeopathy. However, large sums of money are still being paid for found objects washed up, which, depending on the quality, can be in the five-digit euro range per kilo.

Ambergris is found floating at sea in clumps of up to 10 kilograms, but in individual cases also over 100 kilograms. These ambergris clumps can drift across the oceans for years to decades. Only later was the fresh ambergris discovered in the intestines of the animals when individual sperm whales were slaughtered; it can contain up to 400 kilograms. However, such amounts often lead to intestinal obstruction and ultimately to the death of these animals. Amber chunks are rarely found as flotsam on the coast.[3] In January 2013 a 3kg lump (estimated value £ 100,000) was found near Blackpool, England.[4][5]

The scent of ambergris is ambergris, an alcohol that is converted into the actual scents by air and light. Ambrox, is split up. The scent note is described as woody, dry, balsamic, somewhat tobacco-like to bouqueth-like with an aphrodisiac impact. Ambergris, or its synthetic form, is typically used as a base note in fragrance compositions.

The two French chemists Joseph Bienaimé Caventou and Pierre Joseph Pelletier were the first to isolate, characterize and name Ambrein.

As early as the 15th century, ambergris was traded in Europe and weighed in gold, although these finds only met the highest quality standards in rare cases. Leo Africanus wrote in the 16th century that in Fez the price of ambergris was 60 ducats per pound (in comparison, a slave cost 20, a eunuch 40 and a camel 50 ducats). This made it a very valuable material, even more expensive than gold and precious stones.

Jan Huygen van Linschoten wrote in his travelogues about the ambergris:[6]

“[It is used] in many beautiful things mixed with musk, civet, benzoin and other sweet things, and from the mixtures beautiful apples and pears are made and set in silver and gold that people carry [in their hands] to to smell it. "

Adam Lonitzer gave in his Kreueterbuch with the following words a substitute recipe for real ambergris:

"... Ambra factitia, that is ... made ambergris, so instead of natural ambergris by many (but much less in strength) it is used, is made from muscat nut, ... nails, spicanardi, bisem and rose water and made into a massa .... Quite a few prepare him for a different white, but must be bisem or zibett darbey. "

In the past, ambergris was also used to prepare particularly exclusive dishes.[7]


Ambergris or Amber is also the Latin, English and Old German name for amber.

The English call amber "Amber", although it is assumed that this is an excretion (Ambre gris) the whale is meant, and officially the etymologists derive the root from the Arabic word anbar = Ambre gris from.

In addition to English and Dutch, the word "Amber" is also used in other languages:

  • in French ambre jaune,
  • in Italian ambra grigia, and
  • in Spanish el ámbar.

In contrast to the English and the Dutch, these peoples had hardly any contact with whalers in the past and should have taken the word from a common source - probably from the Latin “amburo”.

In addition to amber, the old literature also saw whale rat, white Liquidambar and real liquid Storax as white ambergris designated. al-Kindi also specified three fragrance formulas under the keyword “amber” that had nothing to do with ambergris.

In the German language the word appears Amber in the river name Amper, in the Ammergebirge, Ammersee and in the name Ammergau. These names are part of an amber route.

Ambergris in literature

Amber was often mentioned in love poetry. In Herman Melvilles Moby Dick is it [called:

“Who would think that the finest ladies and gentlemen feast on a fragrance that can be extracted from the inglorious bowels of a sick sperm whale! And still, that's the way it is. Gray amber is believed by some to be the cause and others to be the result of poor digestion that whales sometimes suffer from. How to cure such dyspepsia is difficult to say; unless you give the patient three or four boatloads of rhubarb pills and then quickly get out of the line of fire (...).
I claim that when the sperm whale flings up its tail fin, it gives off as much fragrance as a musky-scented lady who rustles her skirts in a warm salon. "


  • Alain Corbin: Breath of plague and scent of flowers: a story of smell (Original title: Le miasme et la jonquille. Aubier Montaigne, Paris 1982. Translated by Grete Osterwald), Wagenbach, Berlin 2005 (first edition 1984), ISBN 978-3-8031-3618-3.
  • Sabine Krist / Wilfried Grießer: Exploring the chemical senses. Theories of smell and taste from antiquity to the present day. Lang, Frankfurt am Main / Berlin / Bern / Bruxelles / New York / Oxford / Vienna 2006, ISBN 978-3-631-55284-1.
  • Gisela Reinecke, Claudia Pilatus: Perfume - Lexicon of Fragrances. Komet, Cologne 2006, ISBN 978-3-89836-596-3.
  • Renate Smollich: The muskrat in art and science. Deutscher Apotheker Verlag, Stuttgart 1983, ISBN 3-7692-0733-5, pp. 26–30 (on the history of the fragrance)
  • Bernd Schäfer: Ambrox. Irresistible fragrance. In: Chemistry in our time. 45, No. 6, Wiley-VCH Verlag, Weinheim December 2011, ISSN 0009-2851, pp. 374-388, doi: 10.1002 / ciuz.201100557.

Web links

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Sources of quotation

  1. Amber in General Lexicon of Arts and Sciences, Thomas Fritschen, Leipzig 1721, p. 32
  2. ↑ Alexandre O. Exquemelin, last German as Pirates of the Caribbean: An eyewitness account from the 17th century, Reprint of The American pirates; a Flibustier book (sic!) from the XVII. century, Heel Verlag, 2007, here: p. 99
  3. Boy finds rare whale vomit on beach at Hengistbury Head. BBC News, August 30, 2012, accessed January 31, 2013.
  4. Whale vomit could spell fortune for Briton (en). Al Jazeera English (February 1, 2013). Retrieved February 1, 2013.
  5. A beach find makes the British rich: cough from the whale (de). Spiegel Online (February 1, 2013). Retrieved February 1, 2013.
  6. ^ Translation from Smollich, p. 28. According to E. Bovill, Musk and ambergris, in dragoco report 19.1972, p. 200
  7. ↑ Chefs Serve Whale Vomit Dish At Castle Feast