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Real amber of a sperm whale

The Ambra or Amber is a gray, waxy substance from the digestive tract of sperm whales . It used to be used in perfume making . Today it has largely been replaced by synthetic substances and is only used in a few expensive perfumes.


Etymologists derive the word forms amber and amber from the Arabic word anbar , which is often pronounced as ambar . Ambra is also the Middle Latin name, which came into German via Italian , while the form amber was conveyed via French ambre .

The Arabic word anbar was brought to Europe by the Crusaders . As early as the late 13th century, the word was also used to denote amber in Europe , possibly because amber, like ambergris, washes up on beaches. However, it cannot be ruled out that despite the identical names for amber and amber, there is no etymological relationship. When the use of amber fell sharply, for example the word ambre in French or amber in English got the main meaning "amber". The color was used for linguistic differentiation. Amber used to be called white amber or yellow amber in English ; To this day, ambergris is referred to in French as ambre gris ("gray amber") and as ambergris in English.

The connection between the terms for amber and amber can also be seen in other languages:

  • French: ambre gris (ambergris), ambre (amber)
  • Italian: ambra grigia (ambergris), ambra (amber)
  • Spanish: ámbar gris (amber), ámbar (amber)
  • English: ambergris (ambergris), amber (amber) - hence amber as an English foreign word for amber in German

In addition to amber, the old literature also referred to whale rat , white Liquidambar and real liquid Storax as white ambergris . al-Kindī also gave three fragrance formulas under the keyword amber that had nothing to do with ambergris.


Ambergris from a sperm whale found in the North Sea

Ambergris is produced when sperm whales eat. The indigestible parts such as beaks or horned jaws of cuttlefish and octopus are embedded in ambergris. The intestines of individual sperm whales can contain up to 400 kilograms of ambergris. However, such amounts often lead to intestinal obstruction and ultimately to the death of these animals. The exact cause of the development is unclear. The sperm whale may have a metabolic disease if it forms ambergris. According to another theory, the substance is used for antibiotic closure of wounds in injuries to the intestinal wall. The substance gets into the sea through vomiting, as "fecal stones" or through the natural death of the animals.

Ambergris is found floating on the sea in clumps of usually up to 10 kilograms, but in individual cases also over 100 kilograms. These ambergris clumps can drift through the oceans for years to decades. Amber chunks are rarely found as flotsam on a coast.

Previous ideas about the origin


There was already speculation about the origin of ambergris in the 10th century. The Arab traveler Al-Masudi gave accounts of traders and sailors who claimed that ambergris grew like mushrooms on the seabed. They are whirled up in storms and washed up on the coasts. Amber comes in two different forms, a white and a black. Al-Masudi also reported that at one point on the Arabian coast on the Indian Ocean, the residents trained their camels to look for ambergris.

The idea that ambergris flowed from springs near the seashore also originated in Arabia. In the fairy tale Arabian Nights , after being shipwrecked , Sindbad stranded on a desert island, where he discovered a spring of smelly, raw ambergris. The substance flowed like wax into the sea, where it was first swallowed by huge fish and then vomited up again in the form of fragrant lumps that floated onto the beach.

In China , until around 1000 AD, ambergris was called lung sien hiang (Lóngxiánxiāng 龍 涎 香), the "saliva perfume of dragons", as it was believed that the substance came from the saliva of dragons lying on rocks on the edge of the sea slept. In the Orient, ambergris is still known by this name today.


In ancient Greece, where ambergris was added to wine because of its supposedly alcohol-enhancing property, a source near the sea was assumed to be the place of origin of ambergris.

In large parts of ancient and early medieval Europe it was assumed that real amber and amber were of the same or at least similar origin. Presumably this idea goes back to the similarities of these two substances in fragrance, rarity and value as well as in external appearance and occurrence (on sea coasts). However, a difference between amber and amber is mentioned in early chronicles. Amber was then viewed either as the sperm of fish or whales, as the droppings of unknown seabirds (probably from an incorrect interpretation of the octopus beaks contained in the ambergris) or as large beehives from coastal areas.

Marco Polo already knew the origin of ambergris from the stomach of whales. He reported that the inhabitants of the island of Socotra , which is near the Horn of Africa , traded in large quantities of ambergris. According to his report, they pulled the carcasses of dead whales ashore to get ambergris from the stomach and " oil " from the head.

Johannes Hartlieb stated in his book of herbs (originated between 1435 and 1450) that ambergris grows on the sea floor and is detached from whales there by water turbulence. This corresponded to Al-Masudi's theory about the origin of ambergris, which was also represented by Adam Lonitzer in the 16th century .

In 1574 the Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius was the first to deduce from inclusions of squid beaks in ambergris that it came from the digestive tract of whales. For a long time, however, this received little attention. Only later, when fresh ambergris was discovered in the intestines of individual animals while slaughtering sperm whales, Clusius' statement was confirmed.

In the 17th century, the ship's doctor Exquemelin interpreted ambergris as wax from wild bees: “In these landscapes there are also many bees that make their honey on the forest trees, and so it is not uncommon for violent storms to bring the wax together with it honey hanging on the trees is driven towards the sea. [...] Which is probably quite believable, because when you find it, this ambergris is still soft and smells like wax. "

Historical drawing of a lump of ambergris from 1753

The General Lexicon of Arts and Sciences , published in Leipzig in 1721, describes as the most likely explanation for ambergris this is “earth pitch” that was washed ashore by the flood and hardened by the air and seawater.

In 1783 the botanist Joseph Banks presented to the Royal Society a work by the German doctor Franz Xaver Schwediauer , who lived in London , in which he described the errors prevailing in Western Europe about ambergris and the origin of this substance. He identified ambergris as a product of the often unnaturally distended intestines of sick sperm whales and associated the formation of ambergris with the beaks of octopuses, the main food of the sperm whales.


Ambra is a gray to black, opaque, waxy, viscous mass interspersed with light yellow to gray stripes or dots. The density is about 0.8-0.9 g / cm³, it is insoluble in water, slightly soluble in alcohol and ether , the melting point is about 60 ° C, the boiling point about 100 ° C.

Fresh amber is white, soft, and smells offensive. Only through years or decades of contact with air, light and salt water does it get its firm consistency and its pleasant scent. It consists of about 95% of odorless sterols ( Epicoprosterol , Coprosterol , Coprostanone , cholesterol ) and also odorless triterpene alcohol ambrein , and pristane and ketones . More recent investigations using the coupling of gas chromatography with mass spectrometry show that a dichloromethane extract contained amberine as the main component in addition to various sterols. The odor-determining ingredients (approx. 0.5%) are formed from amberfine through air and light - u. a. Ambrox and Ambrinol . The scent note is described as woody, dry, balsamic, somewhat tobacco-like with an aphrodisiac impact. Ambergris, or its synthetic form, is typically used as a base note in fragrance compositions.

The two French chemists Joseph Bienaimé Caventou and Pierre Joseph Pelletier were the first to isolate, characterize and name Ambrein .


The gray and black ambergris played an important role in the manufacture of perfume. In Asia, ambergris is a popular incense that has been used in various rituals and ceremonies many centuries before Christ. In the Orient, ambergris is also used as a spice for food and wine and as an aphrodisiac . In the past, ambergris was also used to prepare particularly exclusive dishes.

In the Middle Ages, ambergris was used as a medicine in the context of humoral pathology . Johannes Hartlieb explained in his herbal book that the substance has a dry and hot effect in the second degree. As a result, ambergris helps excellently with all heart diseases, it is considered to be the most precious to the heart . Furthermore, ambergris works against fainting, epilepsy and an undescended uterus.

Jan Huygen van Linschoten wrote in his travelogues about the ambergris:

“[It is used] in many beautiful things mixed with musk , civet , benzoin and other sweet things, and from the mixtures beautiful apples and pears are made and set in silver and gold that people carry [in their hands] to to smell it. "

Adam Lonitzer specified a substitute recipe for real ambergris in his Kreüter book with the following words:

"... Ambra factitia, that is ... made ambergris, so instead of natural ambergris is used by many (but much less in strength), it is made from muscat nut, ... nails, spicanardi, bisem and rose water and made into a massa .... Quite a few prepare it for a different white, but must be bisem or zibett darbey. "


As early as the 15th century, ambergris was traded in Europe and weighed in gold, although these finds only met the highest quality standards in rare cases. Leo Africanus wrote in the 16th century that in Fez the price for a pound of ambergris was 60 ducats (in comparison, a slave cost 20, a eunuch 40 and a camel 50 ducats). That made it a very precious substance.

Due to the synthesis of this substance and the ban on trade in sperm whale products under the Washington Convention on Endangered Species , ambergris is no longer valued. However, large sums of money are still being paid for found objects washed up, which, depending on the quality, can be in the five-digit euro range per kilogram.

A sperm whale carcass that was washed up off the Dutch island of Texel in December 2012 contained a lump of ambra weighing 83 kilograms and worth around 500,000 euros.

Ambergris in literature

Amber was often mentioned in love poetry.

In Herman Melville's Moby-Dick it says:

“Who would think that the finest ladies and gentlemen feast on a fragrance that one gets from the inglorious bowels of a sick sperm whale! And still, that's the way it is. The gray amber is believed by some to be the cause and others to be the result of the poor digestion that whales sometimes suffer from. How to cure such dyspepsia is difficult to say; unless you give the patient three or four boatloads of rhubarb pills and then quickly get out of the line of fire [...] I claim: when the sperm whale flings up its tail fin, it exudes as much fragrance as a musky-scented lady who puts hers in a warm salon Lets rustle skirts. "

See also

Web links

Commons : Ambergris  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  • Alain Corbin : Breaths of plague and the scent of flowers: A story of smell. (Original title: Le miasme et la jonquille. Aubier Montaigne, Paris 1982. Translated by Grete Osterwald), Wagenbach, Berlin 2005 (first edition 1984), ISBN 978-3-8031-3618-3 .
  • Sabine Krist / Wilfried Grießer: The exploration of the chemical senses. Theories of smell and taste from antiquity to the present. Lang, Frankfurt am Main / Berlin / Bern / Bruxelles / New York / Oxford / Vienna 2006, ISBN 978-3-631-55284-1 .
  • Gisela Reinecke, Claudia Pilatus: Parfum - Lexicon of Fragrances . Komet, Cologne 2006, ISBN 978-3-89836-596-3 .
  • Renate Smollich: The muskrat in art and science. Deutscher Apotheker Verlag, Stuttgart 1983, ISBN 3-7692-0733-5 , pp. 26-30, (on the history of the fragrance).
  • Bernd Schäfer: Ambrox. Irresistible fragrance . In: Chemistry in Our Time . tape 45 , no. 6 . Wiley-VCH Verlag, Weinheim December 2011, p. 374–388 , doi : 10.1002 / ciuz.201100557 .
  • Hans Irion: Druggists Lexicon. 2. Band: A-K . Springer, 1955, ISBN 978-3-642-49508-3 , p. 66 f.

Individual evidence

  1. a b Duden online: Ambra
  2. a b Amber (fragrance). Duden online
  3. a b c amber . Online Etymology Dictionary
  4. ambergris . Online Etymology Dictionary
  5. Duden online: Amber (amber)
  6. Boy finds rare whale vomit on beach at Hengistbury Head. BBC News, August 30, 2012, accessed January 31, 2013 .
  7. ^ The Travels of Marco Polo . John Murray, London, 1920, Book 3, Chapter 32 ( Wikisource )
  8. ^ A b William F. Perrin, Bernd Würsing, JGM Thewissen: Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Second Edition, Academic Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-12-373553-9 , pp. 28 f.
  9. Alexandre O. Exquemelin : last German as Pirates of the Caribbean: An eyewitness report from the 17th century. Reprint of The American Pirates - a Flibustier book from the XVII. Century. Heel Verlag, 2007, ISBN 978-3-89880-853-8 , here: p. 99.
  10. ^ Johann Theodor Jablonski: Amber . In: General Lexicon of Arts and Sciences . Thomas Fritschen, Leipzig 1721, p. 32 ( full text in the Google book search)
  11. Peter Borschberg: The Asian amber trade during the early modern period. In: Claude Guillot, Jorge Manuel dos Santos Alves, Roderich Ptak: Mirabilia Asiatica. Vol. 2, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005, ISBN 3-447-05118-3 , pp. 167-201.
  12. ^ Rowland SL, Sutton PA: Chromatographic and spectral studies of jetsam and archived ambergris . Nat Prod Res , 2017. PMID 28278659
  13. Ambergris. Retrieved April 26, 2016 .
  14. Chefs Serve Whale Vomit Dish At Castle Feast .
  15. Johannes Hartlieb: Herbal Book . Critical ed. by G. Hayer and B. Schnell. Wiesbaden 2010 (Knowledge literature in the Middle Ages 47), p. 32 (dating) and 78 f. Pictorial representations of ambergris in digitized manuscripts of the 'herb book': Berlin, SB, mgq 2021, fol. 12v - Heidelberg, UB, cpg 311, fol. 237ra - Wolfenbüttel, HAB, Cod. 79 Aug. 2 °, fol. 13r - Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2826, fol. 12v .
  16. Translation from Smollich, p. 28. After E. Bovill, Moschus und Ambra. In Dragoco report. 19.1972, p. 200.
  17. Ansbert Kneip: A heap of luck: How a fisherman and his wife got almost filthy rich . In: Der Spiegel . No. 11 , 2006 ( online ).
  18. Half miljoen euro 'goud' in aangespoelde potvis. De Telegraaf , April 2, 2013, accessed August 20, 2014 (Dutch).
  19. Herman Melville: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale . Chapter 92 - Ambergris