Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris ~ book review

Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris

Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is. — Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Over the years, perfumers have had some wonderfully repugnant substances in their arsenal. Some, like jasmine and oakmoss, look picturesque in nature but can waltz into a perfume with manure or pond scum caked on their boots. Others have unseemly origins, like oudh produced by fungus-infected trees and various musks harvested from animals’ rear ends. Ambergris is a bit of both. It is produced in the bowels of just one percent of sperm whales from indigestible squid parts and feces, and expelled (sometimes fatally1) to the ocean’s surface, where it ideally ages for a few years before washing ashore. It almost always smells a bit like barnyard. Like oakmoss and animal musk, it seems to belong to a past age of perfumery. But ambergris has a mystery all its own, a treasure from the sea that can bring its finder a small fortune, an olfactory enigma that is difficult to describe and impossible to create in a lab.2

Molecular biologist Christopher Kemp first heard of ambergris in 2008 when a huge block of ambergris was thought to have washed up in New Zealand, where he was living at the time. It proved to be tallow, essentially worthless. Still, the idea of tide-borne treasure captured Kemp’s imagination and his intellectual curiosity, which led to the quick discovery of how little attention the scientific community has given ambergris. “In fact,” Kemp writes in the introduction, “to begin with I found almost no useful information at all—just a handful of esoteric scientific papers and medical textbooks, most of them published in the eighteenth century. They were full of contradictions and inconsistencies.”

In Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris, Kemp recounts his adventures and discoveries from the two years he spent attempting to understand the nature of ambergris and the hold it has on people. The narrative weaves together countless hours combing the beach, digging in museum archives, and tapping into the underground world of ambergris trading.

Along the way there are a few choice cameos from the perfume industry. Chandler Burr makes a compelling argument for why perfume houses don’t use it anymore — though a Grasse-based dealer says otherwise. Mandy Aftel of Aftelier describes how ambergris interacts with other aromatics, and there is a prologue of sorts to her Parfum Privé.3 And there is an excellent and not-too-dense chapter on aroma molecules for those who enjoy that sort of thing (I do).

But Floating Gold is ultimately a work of scientific and historical inquiry — though a highly engaging one with beachcombing interludes. It’s much like spending the day at a natural history museum that happens to be hosting brief lectures by perfumers. If that sounds like fun even without the perfumers, you will likely love this book. If you’d mainly go for the perfumers, you might wait for the paperback. Needless to say, those who don’t care for whales need not apply.


Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris
By Christopher Kemp. 232 pp.
University of Chicago Press, 2012. $22.50.


Note: An e-book was provided by the publisher for this review.

1. If the mass grows large enough, it can rupture or occlude the gut.

2. Although there are many synthetic molecules that are used as substitutes for ambergris, of course. For a brief discussion on the difference between ambergris and amber in perfumery, see the glossary.

2. I purchased a sample of Parfum Privé to wear while reading this. I highly recommend.

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  1. Anya says:

    I had fun reviewing this book, Aleta. I was one of those who vetted the North Carolina ambergris for Eden Botanicals, and was happy to turn several natural perfumers on to it. The chapter on its use in perfumery was too short, but the book was a good read overall.

    • Aleta says:

      I definitely would have liked to hear more about how large perfume houses use ambergris to consistent effect since each piece of ambergris has natural variations in its composition. But I got the impression Kemp had a heck of a time getting anyone from the mainstream sector of the industry for an interview, so I’m not inclined to fault him. The information he did get is quite good!

      • Anya says:

        It’s a common misconception that the scent of ambergris is integral to the perfume. It’s not. Ambergris is used in minute quantities to ‘marry’ the other aromatics together, exalting them. It’s an exalting fixative. I have samples of eight different ambergris’. Yes, they all have slightly different scent profiles. However, their scent profiles are profoundly similar. Decades ago, I believe ambergris was used at a higher percentage in perfumes for the scent effect, but still, it was a minor scent player in the perfumes.

        Nowadays, many new to perfumery think that ambergris *must* smell like something. I see it as more of a facilitator/exalting element, as described above. To use so much as to make it a scent element in a perfume is wasteful to me, especially given that it’s a rare and precious commodity.

        • Aleta says:

          Interesting! I love the full-blown ambergris in Parfume Privé, but now that I think about it I couldn’t see having more than one such perfume in my collection.

          I put on the scantest possible drop of Parfum Privé first thing Saturday morning, and threw a cashmere sweater on over my pajamas. The way the ambergris kicked around with my body heat and whatever bits of other fragrances lingering on my skin and sweater was just phenomenal. I’m tempted to get some ambergris tincture to play with, but I worry I would have too much fun :)

  2. 50_Roses says:

    I love natural history museums, and as a chemist, I enjoy reading about aroma molecules, so this sounds right up my alley. Incidentally, I have been contemplating purchasing a sample of Parfum Prive. I fear is that I may really love it, as it is far from inexpensive.

    What I would really love to do is to acquire all the perfume books that are on my to-buy list, then take a week of vacation to read them while wearing perfumes mentioned in ,inspired by, or otherwise related to those books.

    • You might be ok, 50 Roses; I had the same fear but fortunately did not love Parfum Privé at all. :-)

      I’m definitely going to enjoy reading this book, though. Yay for the Kindle edition! Already acquired.

      • Aleta says:

        Have you tried Hermés’s ambergris-inspired Eau de Merveilles? I had hoped to get a sample to try while reading, but I never made it to Nordies. Even if it doesnt provide a blast of actual ambergris, at least it’s on topic :)

        • I did, and I very much like Eau de Merveilles. It’s a smooth commercial blend, and of course not real ambergris, whereas Parfum Privé is a different story.

          Yeah, we’re totally on topic!

    • Aleta says:

      I’ll sign up for that vacation!

      I don’t love Parfum Privé as much as I feared I would. But I think it’s worth the risk to experience ambergris, it’s a freaky little substance.

  3. poodle says:

    I’ve got this book on my wish list. I’m going to get it one of these days. It’s not my usual reading material but it sounds fascinating.

    • Aleta says:

      The nice thing about the way it’s written is that the topics are nicely broken up and mingled, so if you find you could care less about the anatomy of a sperm whale you’re quickly on to the drama of beachcomber turf wars.

      I hope you enjoy it once you get your hands on a copy!

  4. nozknoz says:

    Aleta, thanks for reviewing this! I’ve had the kindle version on my wish list for a while. I guess I’m wondering if it would really work on kindle, or if there are photos that would make would be missed in that medium?

    • Aleta says:

      There is a color photo insert, but there’s nothing spectacular that you would miss out on–unless you plan on hunting for ambergris in a serious way, in which case the color would be useful. A couple of the pics pop up on Google though.

      My review copy wasn’t compatible with Kindle, and I would actually trade it for the Kindle version in a heartbeat–reading outside is next to impossible with an iPad, and the photos did not make up for it.

      • nozknoz says:

        Thanks, Aleta. I guess if I ever move to a coastal area and take up ambergris hunting I could always buy a second copy. ;-)

        • Aleta says:

          I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up with a hard copy at some point—probably the next time my Amazon order needs just a few more dollars to qualify for free shipping :P

  5. shellyw says:

    I got my copy after an NPR interview a few weeks ago. I am finding it very readable as a non-scientist. The cloak and dagger aspect of getting people to talk to him is amazing. Many other people/authors form other perfume books are in bits and pieces so it is neat to see a different angle on their “personalities”.

    • Aleta says:

      I got really happy when Luca Turin was friendly :P

  6. cjkemp says:

    Hi Everyone. Humble author here. I’m always around to answer any ambergris-related questions you might have. And Aleta, you’re totally right on your guess: getting established perfumers like Chanel and Guerlain to comment on what is and is not in their fragrances is just impossible. But I did try! And also, I approached this as an interested scientist, a biologist actually. So I tried to do due diligence to all the related subjects involved, like natural history, perfume, molecular chemistry, history, and present-day reportage. In other words, it’s not just a perfume book, like it’s not just a book about whales, or a just a book about New Zealand, etc. Anyone looking for a one-dimensional look at ambergris might be disappointed , it’s true. But I guess I just sat down and wrote the book I wanted to write and hopefully people like it, or parts of it anyway. Thankss for the review! I enjoyed reading it.

    • Aleta says:

      Thank you for putting together such an incredible book about your experience! I think it’s a really good example of how to bring research out of academia and make it accessible to the general public.

      I’m curious, out of all the ambergris samples you smelled, did you develop a preference for any grade in particular? Your description of the “classic gray” was more appealing to me than the higher-grade, longer-aged white. It sounds like the gray is a more complex stew of wood, tobacco, barnyard, ocean, etc., but isn’t as subtle and oily-smooth.

      And at one point in the book you talk about missing the smell of ambergris after leaving a museum archive. Did you grow attached to any of the perfumes you encountered during your research?

      • cjkemp says:

        Thanks so much! I think I do appreciate the greys more. I’m not a perfumer and so I find the white ambergris a bit too refined. It’s almost inaccessible, although it’s probably better for perfume.

        It’s important to remember that all pieces of ambergris are different, and smell different too — a product of their journey at sea, which is unique and can’t be replicated. I describe a piece in the book that I really fell for. It smelled like the ocean and wide open grassy spaces and fresh air. Very ozone-y. I wished I could have bought it right there, but I wasn’t in the position to spend $1000 on whale poop.

        My favorite ambergris perfume has none in it. It’s Not a Perfume by Juliette Has a Gun. Romano Ricci, who is based in Paris. He was being sort of playful and coy by building a fragrance made only of different types of synthetic ambergris. Instead of trying to sneak synthetics past people he decided to celebrate them instead and put them front and center. Somehow it reminds me of everything I like about ambergris without quite smelling like it. It’s a very warm smelling fragrance. I like it a lot.

  7. ggperfume says:

    Putting this on my library request list right now!

  8. Rappleyea says:

    Wonderful review, Aleta – thank you so much. This sounds like a fascinating book, and I’ll definitely be buying it for my Kindle.

    Btw, could you not email your version to your Kindle email address with the word “convert” in the subject line to have it converted to Kindle? I’m not sure what restrictions there are on the original document forms.

  9. bluegardenia says:

    I didn’t know ambergris was whale feces and squid parts! I’d always read over the years that it was a substance created by the whale to coat sharp objects it had swallowed. Now it turns out to be yet another anal secretion (see musk, civet, castoreum, Africa stone). What is it with perfume and anal secretions!! I’m starting to wonder if Chanel no. 5 secretly has plain old human poo in it.

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