The extinction of whales and the last perfume
It was around 2012 when I first read about an 8-year-old boy named Charlie in England who stumbled upon what seemed to be a unique-looking “rock” lying in the beach sand. It was yellowish brown in colour, the size of a loaf of bread and weighing slightly over half a kilogram. Little did Charlie and his family know that he had in his hands a very rare and special ingredient that had been used in traditional perfumes for thousands of years during the manufacturing process. It’s said to be worth more than 30 times its weight in silver; the reason why some call it “floating gold,” but commonly known as “ambergris.”
Ambergris is a valuable substance that is used in high-end perfumes; it’s created by the Sperm whale when the undigested parts of squids get covered by a waxy chemical that the whale produces in the intestine and once excreted, it turns into a solid waxy mass that will spend several years drifting on the ocean until eventually washing up on a shoreline waiting to be discovered by an unsuspecting passer-by. The years under the sun and contact with salt water help it age, giving it the characteristic rich earthy sweet aroma that has long been desired since the Egyptian times til this very day.
Ambergris is a key ingredient in some of the most well-known perfumes of the present day, including luxury brands like Dior by Louis Vuitton SE (BATS EU: MC) and also scents by Chanel. Ambergris substitutes made of synthetic chemicals do exist, although they are rarely employed by high-end perfume companies due to their artificial nature and perceived value from the high-end consumers who can afford them.
Few companies today in the cosmetic industry still manufacture ambergris-based perfumes, given that it is still legal to do so in several regions of the world. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers ambergris a food additive; this means that it can be used in food in minimal amounts, but it hasn’t been approved for use in perfumes. In the European Union, it is still permitted to be used in perfumes but not in food for consumption. On the other hand, ambergris is illegal in Canada as it’s considered to be a drug not approved for use in food or cosmetics by the health authorities.
Gucci by Kering S.A. (BATS EU: KER) is one of these companies that still use real ambergris in their perfumes, hence why these perfumes can be very expensive and are only made in small batches. Gucci’s ambergris perfumes are some of the most sought-after fragrances because of their nature of being crafted with natural ingredients. Estee Lauder Companies Inc (NYSE: EL) is also another global leader in the cosmetics industry, with a wide portfolio of prestigious brands where ambergris is still a key ingredient in some of their luxury perfumes, as it is a rare and valuable substance necessary to produce them.
Synthetic substitutes for ambergris do exist, but they are rarely used by high-end perfume companies. Some brands like Inter Parfums Inc (NASDAQ: IPAR), Ulta Beauty Inc (NASDAQ: ULTA) or Procter & Gamble Co (NYSE: PG) do not use ambergris but rather a synthetic version, sometimes referred to as vegan ambergris. This is more ethical while also providing a more affordable and sustainable alternative that appeals to vegan and/or environmentally conscious consumers, which has been a strongly growing trend in recent years. Synthetic ambergris does not have the same rare and expensive appeal, but it still has the same sweet and earthy smell as the natural ingredient. Their expanded use may help to protect whale populations in the future.
Synthetic notes were developed in the early 1900s, allowing perfume manufacturers to reproduce unextractable natural scents, like the smell of the sea. Moreover, the need for synthetic raw materials continues to grow with the rise of eco-sustainability and respect for the environment. Synthetic ambergris is an appropriate substitute that replicates the scents that cannot be extracted naturally because of legal restrictions.
As this industry keeps advancing and evolving, synthetic notes are also improving, allowing the scent to stick to the skin for longer. The distinctive sweet aroma of ambergris can be replicated in the laboratory but never with the same original qualities of long-lasting smell produced by the natural chemical components; this is why the natural ingredient remains in high demand today.
Now, the reality is that the world’s population of humpback whales is steadily declining and is estimated to be between 80,000 and 90,000 specimens left in the wild. This number is declining due to illegal hunting, entanglement in fishing nets and climate changes. At this current pace, it is estimated that humpback whales could become extinct within the next 100 years.
The extinction of the humpback whale would mark the end of an era for traditional perfumes, and the industry will transition to fully synthetic ingredients; but what will happen to the remaining perfumes in the market that contain ambergris? Are they going to become priceless collectible items that belong in a museum, or will they be illegal to even own?
The green environmental trend seems to favour the protection of whales from extinction and increasing demand for precisely engineered synthetic ingredients as they come at a lower cost for the environment and our pockets. The only thing that seems to be certain is that synthetic fragrances are here to stay as long as the aroma of our perfume still awakens the desired effects in our senses and those around us.