Ambergris may not have the most fragrant of origins, but it’s vital for the noblest of noses
Enough with the circumlocutions, please. It is not “whale vomit” that one man and his dog discovered on the beach at Morecambe. Ambergris is not vomited up, it is excreted, stinking, via the usual channel, whereupon it floats in the seawater until it is as nicely brined as your Christmas gammon. And after that it begins to smell perfectly inoffensive. A whiff of sea-lettuce or samphire, overlaid by fragrance of rock pool after an afternoon’s sunshine and grounded by base notes (that’s how perfumers would put it) of your child’s leather sandal.
How very delicate we are, to be sure. A nice professor of marine conservation from the University of York tried not to upset listeners over their breakfasts with allusions to mammalian faecal matter. But when he told John Humphrys where ambergris actually comes from, he said, “It’s always pooped, rather than vomited,” and Humph’s shudder was audible. “Ach! So everybody’s going to walk down their beaches now, looking for this stuff?”
I don’t know where Humphrys has been all his life, but some of us have been combing beaches for any old stuff since we were small children in ruched bathers with frills round the leg openings. Morecambe Bay was the very first beach I combed, at three years old, and I continued on fabulously white, soft, Mediterranean beaches at Tripoli, Homs and Benghazi until the Army flew us back to Blighty.
I had very little chance of finding any ambergris on my frequent beachcombs, I now realise, having seen pictures, because I looked for heaps of gold, rather than lumps of grey. It was my mother who told me that ambergris was very expensive (“more precious than gold,” she said) and that it was used to make perfume (including hers, Je Reviens, by Worth). From my five-year-old’s memory, my ma smelled of vanilla ice cream and lilies of the valley, not what perfumers call “amber notes”, but there we are.
Perfumers are called noses; they call themselves noses and they talk about their friends who are noses. The two jolliest noses I ever met are Jacques Polge, the nose at Chanel (who created Égoïste and Coco, but whose own favourite perfume is Chanel No 19, which he didn’t create) and Jean-Claude Ellena, who has created perfumes for Hermès and other brands.
They both dress in white coats like lab technicians (or they did when I met them, Polge last century and Ellena five years ago), perhaps in order to prove their seriousness inside what seems (to most businessmen in this country) a larky, limp-wristed kind of a métier that only a girl could love. Yet perfumery is one of the richest retail businesses there is, globally. And male noses far outnumber female ones (apart from Chanel herself, I can only think of Annick Goutal).
Noses have to first learn and then remember the smells of a thousand different smelly things that traditionally were arranged on an “organ” – a vast circular cupboard, with teentsy shelves holding small bottles of tincture. And as with a church organ, the arrangement was top notes on one tier, middle notes on another, low notes on a third.
Ambergris was a low note (leathery, mossy), but it was mostly used by 19th- and 20th-century perfumers as a stabiliser, to fix their scents and ensure that the notes would hold. I have no idea how that worked, chemically, and there’s little need to find out, since ambergris is not used in high-end perfumery these days. The physical organ is replaced by a laptop crammed with mathematical symbols. Jean-Claude Ellena only keeps his bottles of tincture to tickle the nostrils of thick people who can’t read a chemical formula. Sometimes it’s the real extract of a plant, or flower calyx. Sometimes it’s a collection of “molecules” which he mixes up. Wafting a narrow paper slip under your nose he asks, what you can smell? Me: Chocolate, horrible, cheap milk chocolate. He adds another slip of paper to make it “more French”. Me: Phew, that’s Valrhona. A third slip of paper turns the smell to Coca-Cola. I wish one man and his dog a lot of luck with their precious ambergris.