Field of Science

Smells from the sea

One of the most fascinating things about perfumery is the source of its raw materials. Where the medicinal chemist can boast his sponges and tropical fungi, the fragrance chemist can boast some equally or more exotic sources for his materials. These constituents, in natural or synthetic form (usually synthetic; the natural ones are horrendously expensive) constitute the basis of those myriad notes that we smell, every time we use a shampoo or a soap, clean dishes with a detergent, or open a perfume bottle. Consider just two of them:

1. Ambergris:
Formed in the gut of the sperm whale. The whale’s gut contains a complex mixture of mucus, enzymes, and other secretions, which act on the food that it eats. After months of smoldering in the gut, it is finally burped out in the form of a huge blob, white in color, on to the surface of the ocean. But the story is not over yet. This blob floats on the surface of the ocean for months, sometimes years. The action of sunlight, oxygen, and seawater catalyzes a unique and complicated mixture of chemical reactions in it, causing it to become creamish-brown. The result is Ambergris, born of the sea, and washed up on the beach just like Amber (hence the name). The material is as valuable as it looks non-descript.

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Ambergris is one of the world’s most prized perfumery materials. It is also one of the oldest perfumery materials documented, and records date back to the Egyptian era.
Natural Ambergris is fantastically expensive, priced in the international market at a cool 45,000 dollars or so per kilogram, many times its equivalent weight in gold. In the US, its possession is illegal, due to the ban on sperm whale hunting. However, I was very fortunate that my uncle, who works with a top perfumery company, had a tiny sample for me to smell. He had found it washed up on some beach once, and he had managed to get it to his lab and extract the invaluable material from it. The smell of ambergris is very rich and complicated, a mixture of many ‘notes’, as they are called by perfumers. ‘Animalic’ is the description of one of the main notes in the substance. These days, there have been many synthetic substitutes for ambergris, and these are used worldwide in a variety of perfumes and other products.

2. Oudh:
This mystical substance is found in a very few places in the world, India and Cambodia being two of them. In fact India is one of the main exporters of this substance to the West.
Like Ambergris, I found the origin of Oudh very fascinating.
There is a certain species of tree, mainly found in the Indian northeast and other parts of Southeast Asia. The tops of these trees get afflicted by a specific variety of fungus. The fungus attacks the wood, completely changing the color from an austere white to a decomposed, charred black. However, it is precisely this fungus-eaten wood that is the source of this priceless material. Again, I was fortunate to have smelt a sample. Like ambergris, oudh also has a complicated smell, with a distinct animalic note. It is also very expensive, costing anywhere from 25-50,000 dollars a kilogram, depending on its quality and source. Lower grades are naturally cheaper but also odor-contaminated. I have smelt all three of kinds of Oudh; Indian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. The common animalic note is quite distinct in all of them. Each one of the varieties also smells a little of something that has been left out in the open for too long; unlike most of us, the French have long since learnt the value of such a character in perfumery.

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