If we pay huge prices for perfumes coming from the anal glands of the musk deer and civet cat and coffee coming from the dung of civet cat, why should we be surprised by the fact that one the most expensive perfumes is actually vomit?
Ambergris comes from the intestines of the sperm whales. It is actually a biliary secretion whose role has been puzzling the researches throughout time. Sperm whales feed exclusively on squids, the giant ones being preferred. Many believe that amber is secreted to protect the intestine of the whale against the tough beaks of the squids. The whale expels from time to time the ambergris with the embedded beaks (many lumps of ambergris have them).
The lumps vary greatly in shape and size, from 14 g to over 100 pounds (45 kg) and can be encountered floating on the sea, or on the beaches.
Newly expelled ambergris has an intense smell of feces, but after spending at least 10 years on the seawater, exposed to sun bleaching and oxidation, the initial white, soft substance turns into a gray-black stuff, with a crusty and waxy texture, spreading a sweet, musky, mossy, earthy, marine, and attractive smell that many top fragrance makers say it confers a highly appealing trait to perfumes, being significantly richer and smoother than isopropanol, lacking the harshness of the latter.
Ambergris is found in all warm and temperate oceans, where sperm whales hunt, but the biggest amount of commercially collected ambergris is that coming from the Bahama Islands and Providence Island. The fresh amber can also be encountered in the gut of whales, but it is in a white stinky stage.
Because of its source, natural ambergris does not offer a constant supply of high quality product, and synthetic products have been used to replace it. The main one is ambrox, obtained from sclareol (a product coming from clary sage). Microbial ambrox synthesis has also been developed.
Sailors get rich when finding an ambergris lump. Raw stuff costs about USD $10 per gram, and high-quality material even more. A 32-pound (14.4 kg) lump washed up on an Australian beach in 2006 was sold for $ 750,000.
In other times, ambergris was used for making jewellery (especially beds) and even for flavoring foods and in medicine (but you can imagine that only royal houses and very rich people could afford this).