Balsam Fir To Replace Whale Vomit In Perfumes?
Researchers from the University of British Columbia have identified a gene in balsam fir trees similar to another substance called Ambergris. which could potentially pave the way for cheaper and more sustainable ways to produce plant-based fixatives and scents used in perfumes. As it stands, the collection and refining process of ambergris is quite costly and controversial, as ambergris is collected from washed up pieces of sperm whale vomit.
The process goes like this: Sperm whales often consume sharp objects, such as fishbones and seashells. As a way to protect themselves from danger, their bodies have evolved to produce a sticky substance in their guts to protect their digestive organs. Then, like a cat tosses a hairball, the whales throw up the mixture into the deep blue sea. When this mixture makes contact with seawater, it turns into a “rock-like” object to be washed ashore. These objects are then collected on-shore and refined to capture their fixative properties. These properties make ambergris attractive to perfume makers, as any fragrance with the compound added will stay on the skin longer.
The new discovery of the less-repulsive balsam fir gene was led by Professor Joerg Bohlmann and postdoctoral research associate Philipp Zerbe at UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories.
The details of the finding are published in the April 6 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
In their research, Prof. Bohlmann spoke to the use of ambergris in fragrances: “The use of ambergris in the fragrance industry has been controversial,” says Bohlmann, who is a professor of Botany and Forest Sciences. “First of all, it’s an animal byproduct and the use of such in cosmetics has been problematic, not to mention it comes from the sperm whale, an endangered species.”
Ambergris is collected manually along shorelines of known sperm whale habitats in the Caribbean and Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The new balsam fir tree gene isn’t the first attempt to move away from the whale puke to a plant-based fixative. Sage has been cultivated in the Mediterranean for the production of a plant-based ambergris alternative. However, just like ambergris, the yields of the sage fixative can be unpredictable and varied.
“We’ve now discovered that a gene from balsam fir is much more efficient at producing such natural compounds, which could make production of this bio-product less expensive and more sustainable,” says Bohlmann.
With this information, it is likely those planning vacations to whale habitats this summer will make a mental note to keep their eyes open for rogue pieces of puke. A quick search of the internet can land these advantageous ambergris enthusiasts to ambergris.fr, a French site dedicated to the documentation and sale of whale vomit. A click on the tab entitled “Is It Ambergris” will give those itchin’ to go prospectin’ for ‘gris a full description on how to determine if the grayish object collected is, in fact, ambergris.
According to the site, the best and quickest way to identify ambergris, as one might expect, is the odor. Described as having “an animalic component, reminiscent of farm animals, or even a fecal note, perhaps like that of a well rotted manure heap,” A proper specimen of ambergris can be in the shape of a large block, a ball, or even in the shape of an egg. One sure sign you’ve found ambergris is the presence of squid beaks within the specimen. Be careful not to leave it in the backseat of a hot car, though! The sun’s rays can melt the ambergris and darken the substance, thus reducing its quality and value.