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Piece of ambergris

Date: 19th century
Overall: 55 x 73 x 60 mm, 0.05 kg
Medium: Organic matter; Ambergris from the intestines of a sperm whale
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Ambergris
Object No: 00006547

User Terms

    Ambergris is secreted by sperm whales. Rare and costly, it was long used as a fixative in expensive perfumes. Lipstick, cold cream and eye ointment were made from spermaceti and sperm whale oil.
    SignificanceThis piece of ambergris is a reminder of the height of the whaling industry in Australia and the economic rewards that were seen to outweigh the high risk involved in the whaling industry.
    History"Ambergris is a wax-like substance found at rare intervals, but sometimes in relatively large quantities, in the intestines of the sperm whale. With the exception of choice pearls and coral it is the highest-priced product of the fisheries, selling upward of $40 per ounce. It is now generally conceded that ambergris is generated in either sex of the sperm whale, but far more frequently in the male, and is the result of a diseased state of the animal, caused possibly by a biliary irritation, as the individuals from which it is secured are almost invariably of a sickly appearance and sometimes greatly emaciated. It occurs in rough lumps varying in weight from less than one pound to 150 pounds or more. It generally contains fragments of the beak or mandible of squid or cuttle-fish which constitutes the principle food of the sperm whale. When first removed from the animal it is comparatively soft and emits a repugnant odor, but upon exposure to the air, it grows harder, lighter in color, and assumes the appearance it presents when found floating on the ocean. Its color ranges from black to whitish gray, and is often variegated with light stripes and spots resembling marble somewhat." Although ambergris was used as an aphrodisiac, incense and medicine in ancient times it came to be used principally in perfume manufacture because it served to impart homogeneity and permanency to different ingredients employed (Charles H. Stevenson "Aquatic Products in Arts and Industries," Report of the Commissioner for the Year Ending June 30, 1902, U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Part 28 (Washington, 1904).
    Additional Titles

    Web title: Piece of ambergris

    Collection title: Tilbrook collection

    Assigned title: Ambergris

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