There is an ambergris tincture giveaway today, a tiny taste of the real deal. Two mls of the lovely stuff and a tiny piece of real ambergris will be shipped to a reader who leaves a comment. The winner will be selected randomly by 9 a.m. tomorrow, Jan. 14th.
Ah, ambergris: elusive, rare, costly, beautiful, essential to perfumery. Well, real ambergris, that is. I have been recognized as a pretty good amateur ambergris vetter and avid user of the stuff for about 10 years. There are many more experienced than me, but I do what I can. In case of rare grades, I would defer to experts, just having a go at ID’ing the grade, but letting them have the final word.
Someone I have known for many years asked me to vet a piece for some friends of hers. They had found a chunk that they believed to be ambergris in 1991. They said they were ready to sell, and needed an opinion on the chunk. I said to my friend, sure, send me a little sample, some good high resolution photographs, and I’d be happy to help. She replied they wanted to charge me $100 for the tiny sample. Big red flag, not a good sign that they didn’t even know the market rate for ambergris, but that they had dollar signs in their eyes.
First, the photo of the uncut find. Oh, I thought, that is a wad of fossilized grease or some other non-ambergris substance. I told her that. She said they were willing to send me a sample, but would like it back. Sure, no problem.
Well, it’s a rock, probably an agate. I wrote back to my friend, returned the sample, sent her a piece of real ambergris and some 2006 ambergris tincture from my stash. I also told her to visit a lapidary shop before returning it to them for her to receive confirmation of what I said about it being agate.
Here are two photos of the ambergris/agate, and a photo of an assortment of various items often thought to be ambergris – with some ambergris in the mix, too.
ETA: About real ambergris: there is of course, the scent. There are many descriptors used for ambergris, among them earthy, fecal, mossy, salty, warm, balsamic, wet leaves, barnyard. Dozens more, too, depending upon the grade of ambergris. Then there’s the hot needle test. Hot needle test: Heat a needle until it gets very hot. Be sure to protect your fingers, perhaps use a piece of something as a barrier on the end you’re holding it. Touch the needle to the lump you suspect is ambergris. Ambergris’ surface will melt instantly, and form an oily black mark and give off a tiny puff of smoke that has a definite scent. Ambergris will float because it’s lighter than water, but don’t left it sit in water, it will absorb it. Ambergris loses some weight over time, so if you have a chunk for a year or more, it should show some weight loss (due to moisture evaporating).
ETA2: A visitor asked how to make a tincture, and I realized I should have included that information in the post. Here’s my reply:
I’ve never heated my tinctures, and I don’t believe that’s a common practice. I do use a stirrer intermittently ( when I remember to turn it on as I leave the room since the noise is annoying). The old contraptions that constantly rotate the big bottles of ambergris and other tinctures were a mainstay in French perfumery houses. I’m sure they have an updated version now. I never remember reading or hearing of heat with them, either. I see no reason to speed the process. I’m sure it could be done with something like an ultrasonic, but I’m old school about some things.
To make a tincture: Weigh your piece of ambergris. Weigh out 190-proof alcohol that will then create a 3-5% tincture. If your piece is particularity soft/gummy or hard, it helps to add a bit of sand and grind in a mortar and pestle. I often use a microplane grater. When your ambergris is pulverized/grated, add it to a bottle (even if you added the sand, put that in, adds to the marine theme), add the alcohol, shake to mix and if you don’t have a mixer, try to remember to shake it daily for six months. Of course, use a good cap to keep out air. Some say add a bit of alkaline if you believe the ambergris may be acid, but I’ve never done that. After the maturation process is over, I carefully pipette some of the liquid for use, and I leave the original ambergris/sand in the bottom of the bottle. Some may strain it, I don’t, and I have gorgeous various vintages, all still beautiful and usable.
I’ll be here until 10 PM tonight, ET, so please leave your comments before that to be in the drawing for the sample of ambergris tincture and a tiny piece of ambergris.