I have begun re-reading Moby Dick or The Whale (did you know it had an alternative title?) and I knew at some point it would be mentioning ambergris so that got me thinking I would do a post on it.
Straight out of the gate ambergris was, in Herman Melville's day, both extremely valuable and hideous. Now, in our day, it's just hideous because scientists have learned to make it synthetically. Ambergris comes from the digestive systems of sperm whales. It is accumulated inside the whale and is either excreted as feces or if the chunk is too large, it is vomited out like a huge Jonah. Ambergris is found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, from half an ounce to 100 pounds or more. Fresh out of the whale's anus or gaping maw, it reeks, appropriately, of whale feces.
So...why would scientists wish to synthesize ambergris?
After months or years of floating about in the ocean, it gradually hardens, developing a dark gray or black color, a crusty and waxy texture, and a peculiar odor that has been generally described as a vastly richer and smoother version of rubbing alcohol without its stinging harshness.
There you have a clue to its purpose. It was used as a fixative in perfumes. Who figured this out? Who was walking along the beach and found a gray or black chunk of whale vomit - vomit, if you're lucky! - and thought it would make an excellent product to use in perfumery?
I own fossilized dinosaur turds (aka coprolite) that are prettier AND they're charmingly dotted with corn. (not really with the corn)
Today, people apparently buy ambergris specimens for their...collections. I have a collection which will be remaining ambergris-free for the foreseeable future.
The above ambergris has a giant squid beak in it. The owner imagines a fight between a squid and a sperm whale and decided the whale won. Why? Because even if the squid got away it left its beak behind in the whale and so, really, what good is the squid now? I guess that's the circle of life thing.