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Pomander with marked section for ambergris
MFA# 35.1547


A grayish, wax-like material with a sweet spicy odor. Ambergris is formed in the intestinal tract of the sperm whale (Physeter catodon), possibly as a result of an infection. The lightweight wax pieces are obtained directly from whale bodies, floating in the sea, or washed up on beaches, especially China, Japan, Africa, the Americas, and Carribean islands. Ambergis is primarily composed of Cholesterol with smaller amounts of alkaloids, fatty acids, and ambrein. The wax has been used since antiquity as a spice in food and wine, and as a perfume. In perfumes, ambergris provides a scent and also serves as a fixative by decreasing the evaporation rate of other essential oils. Synthetic ambergris has been made using ingredients such as gamma-dihydro ionone and gamma lactone to reproduce the odor (Brady 1971).

Synonyms and Related Terms

amber wax; Ambra (Dan., Deut., Pol., Sven.); ambre gris (Fr.); amber potvis (Ned.); âmbar pardo (Port.); âmbar cinza (Port.); ámbarn gris (Esp.); ambra grigia (It); ambrein; ambergrease; grey amber

Ambergris Credit: Peter Kaminski

Physical and Chemical Properties

  • Soluble in hot ethanol, chloroform, ether, and oils.
  • Insoluble in water.
  • Melting Point = ~60
  • Density = 0.8-0.92

Hazards and Safety


Resources and Citations

  • G.S.Brady, Materials Handbook, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1971 Comment: p. 55
  • Richard S. Lewis, Hawley's Condensed Chemical Dictionary, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 10th ed., 1993
  • The Merck Index, Martha Windholz (ed.), Merck Research Labs, Rahway NJ, 10th edition, 1983 Comment: entry 398
  • Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, Douglas M. Considine (ed.), Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1976
  • Random House, Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Grammercy Book, New York, 1997
  • The American Heritage Dictionary or Encarta, via Microsoft Bookshelf 98, Microsoft Corp., 1998

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