Monday, December 30, 2013

What Comes Out of a Whale and Goes Into Perfume? Ambergris!

 A dealer holds a chunk of ambergris.
A New Zealand dealer holds a chunk of ambergris (or “gray amber”). Photo by Christopher Kemp

Literature is full of quests. Jason hunted for the golden fleece. Dorothy followed the yellow brick road to find her way home to Kansas. Christopher Kemp, you might say, went looking for a piece of whale poop, which in its most refined state is the worth-its-weight-in-gold substance known as ambergris. The material is used as a fixative in perfumery; it stabilizes and anchors the other notes, as the ingredients of a fragrance are known, and adds an underlying basso profundo of animalic mustiness.

Five years ago, Kemp, who is a molecular biologist at Michigan State, turned on the television while living in New Zealand and was intrigued by a story about a mysterious lump of material the size of a 44 gallon drum that had washed on shore. The initial speculation—that it was ambergris and worth a fortune— touched off a civilian scrum as locals hacked off pieces and carted their “payload” home. It turned out to be a cast-off piece of lard. The incident was the irritant that produced a pearl of a book— Floating Gold—A Natural (&Unnatural) History of Ambergris published by the University of Chicago Press. We asked Kemp to tell us more.

Many people must have seen the broadcast about the mysterious lump that washed ashore, caused a gold rush-like stampede, and turned out to be lard instead of ambergris, but you are the only one who wrote a book about it? How do you account for that?

I’d never heard of ambergris, but when I turned the TV on [and saw the news report] it must have burrowed into my subconscious. Every time I went to the beach I would look and say: ‘Is that it?’ Usually you Google something and get all your answers in ten minutes. Ambergris resisted that ten-minute Google. I wanted more. I wanted to know if people still use it and how it’s used and where do you find

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