What Is Ambergris Oil?

Elizabeth West

Ambergris oil is a product of ambergris, from the French amber gris meaning "gray amber," a waxy substance that comes from the digestive tracts of sperm whales. It can sometimes be found on the beach or floating in the water. The oil is used in perfume to fix other scents, and trappers also use it to make scent lures. Most ambergris oil is synthetic; the real thing is extremely costly, and very rare.

Ambergris was traditionally used as a fixative in perfumes.
Ambergris was traditionally used as a fixative in perfumes.

The sperm whale feeds on giant squid deep below the ocean's surface, but it cannot digest their hard beaks. Its digestive system secretes the substance to smooth the passage of these indigestible particles. Ambergris oil can be taken from killed whales, but often washes up in the surf after the live whale has expelled it. While ambergris has an unpleasant odor when it is fresh, after aging it mellows to an earthy sweetness.

Ambergris is found in the digestive tracts of sperm whales.
Ambergris is found in the digestive tracts of sperm whales.

Whale ambergris is highly prized in the perfume industry for its fixative properties. Ambergris oil holds the scents of other substances better than any synthetic, due to an affinity with fatty molecules in perfume ingredients. When it is added to a mixture, it enhances the other ingredients, while its own scent fades into the background. This makes it a prized addition to exclusively-produced essences.

The substance was banned in a number of countries in the 1970s, when the sperm whale earned a designation as an endangered species in the US, so many perfumers moved away from using ambergris oil and onto synthetic substitutes. In the early 2000s, better controls were put in place to ensure distributors only supplied ambergris that washed up onshore. Countries that allow whaling, such as Japan, largely leave the sperm whale alone.

Trappers have used ambergris oil to mix with animal scents for trapping lures. It mixes well with musk and fixes the odor the same way it does in perfume. Ambergris scent, since it is of animal origin, attracts other animals. It is also used by practitioners of magical arts and pagan religions for spell work, making candles and other ritual applications. Most of the ambergris oil available for these uses is artificial.

Synthetic substitutes for ambergris oil, called amber oil, are made from resins and plant lipids but do not contain any true ambergris. Typically there are several ingredients derived from vegetable or animal sources and blended together. Beeswax is a common base, enhanced by other scents that mimic the warm, mellow scent of true ambergris but can never capture it completely.

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