…on the whale vomit

Now that we can smell the spring around us I thought it’s time talk about the pheromones. Pheromones are the molecules produced by various organs and are used by the animal (and humans) to communicate between each other. For this purpose they are expelled out of the body so that other individuals can smell it. Pheromones have few different functions like identification or alarm, but we are, of course, interested in only one: sexual attraction. Oh yes, we are talking about THE chemistry here 😉

To be honest first time I’ve heard about those pheromones was when I got fascinated by perfumery. Apparently, for centuries perfumers have been struggling trying to integrate the pheromones into their perfumes. There are few reasons for that but the most important, of course, is because all the pheromone containing essences are very strong aphrodisiacs. Therefore most of the people instinctively choose the smells which contain pheromones. Since all of the pheromone containing essences are of animal source they are also very strong fixatives: they bind together all the smells and prolong their life. It is said that some of them, for example ambergris, can retain its scent for as long as three hundred years.

All of the pheromone containing essences like musk, civet or ambergris come from the animal source and are extremely difficult to get therefore they are very expensive. Sometimes they are literarily worth of gold: one gram of raw ambergris sells for $20 while gold sells roughly for $30.  In 2005, a 200-year-old fragrance originally made for Marie Antoinette that featured ambergris as a main ingredient was reproduced in limited quantities for $11,000 a bottle.

So here comes the whale vomit. Yes, this mysterious highly priced substance called ambergris mentioned in all the ancient pharmacopoeias is actually a whale vomit, sperm whale vomit to be more precise. This one of the biggest marine mammal feeds on fish and the giant squids found in the depth of the oceans. Squid beaks and other indigestible parts cause the irritation in the stomach which is not a surprise since one whale eats about a ton of those animals a day! To ease the irritation sperm whale produces the secretions which is believed to have ambrein (the main ambergris compound) and is regurgitated like the cat hair ball. This huge vomit is flouting in the ocean for days or months (sometimes years!) till it drifts ashore where it becomes the grey or black lump.  When it reaches the perfumer’s laboratory it is dissolved in alcohol and that infusion is kept in the dark for at least ten years till it becomes a essence worth tens thousands of dollars.

I have no idea how the pure ambergris smell but it is said that its sweet woody smell is a very strong aphrodisiac and even has a narcotic effect. In the Middle East it still being eaten by men to increase their libido and by women to treat the infertility. Ancient physicians write that ambergris can  cure basically all the diseases: stomach problems, sore throat, mental diseases and even paralysis. In Europe in the 14th century ambergris was thought to protect from the plague or the Black Death.

Some of the perfumers say that ambergris is the closest smell to the actual smell of the women’s skin. It has this warm, mothering, grounding and at the same time intoxicating effect, that’s why nobody can refuse to it.   Ambergris is an aphrodisiac, narcotic and tranquilizing note that lifts any perfume creation above the mundane. It connects us to the emotions which lies deep within the human psyche making it irresistible to anyone who comes across it.

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