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How whale vomit became the key to the most luxurious fragrances

Whale, you’ll never believe what makes certain perfumes and colognes smell so good.

A rare, waxy material called ambergris — known as “floating gold,” it’s something of a treasure in the fragrance industry — can elevate the scents and notes of a perfume or cologne.

“It’s an extremely valuable substance that’s known for its unique scent and fixative qualities,” November Nichols, perfumer and owner of Chémin, told POPSUGAR last week. “It enhances the longevity and depth of the fragrances that it’s added to.”

Ambergris is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales, the largest toothed predator — which have long been listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

In other words, ambergris is whale vomit.

Ambergris is something of a treasure in the fragrance industry — it’s known as “floating gold.” Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Ambergris is produced to protect the whale’s gut from sharp objects and, over time, is expelled and can be found floating in the ocean or washed ashore,” Nichols explained.

The coveted material is credited with making a perfume’s scent last longer, and its rarity makes it so expensive that it’s typically only found in higher-end, luxurious fragrances.

Harvesting ambergris is generally considered an ethical practice since it’s collected after it has naturally exited the whale’s body, with no contact or harm to the animal.

However, due to the endangered status of the sperm whale, there are regulations around the trade of ambergris.

“In some countries, it is illegal to trade or possess ambergris,” Nichols said.

The sperm whale became an endangered species primarily due to whaling. Francois Gohier/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, it is illegal to kill sperm whales almost anywhere on the planet — and some countries have made the possession and trade of ambergris illegal to reduce potential harm to the population.

The sperm whale became an endangered species after hunting it became popular, particularly in the 1800s, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

Before the whaling industry took off, there were about 1.1 million sperm whales. Now, there are just about 300,000 left.

Ambergris is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Scientists are still unsure of the exact origin of ambergris, but it is commonly believed that it is formed when the whales eat irritants, such as a beak, and produce a slippery substance to protect their digestive organs from the offending particles, according to National Geographic.

It is estimated that only 1% of sperm whales are capable of secreting ambergris.

Due to the scarcity of the whale vomit, a gram is worth around $27 — and a pound could be worth over $10,000.

While ambergris can be extremely hard to find, some people have struck floating gold.

Harvesting ambergris is typically considered an ethical practice since it’s only collected after it has naturally exited the whale’s body. Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

A lump believed to be worth over $250,000 was found inside a sperm whale after it became stranded on Nogales Beach in La Palma, Canary Islands, in May 2023.

The nearly 20-pound chunk of ambergris caused chronic obstructive inflammation in the animal’s colon, according to experts at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

A few months later, a fisherman’s dog discovered a “disgusting” blob on a beach in Scotland — which might have been a highly valuable chunk of whale vomit.

Written by New York Post