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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chanel No. 2



There’s more to making perfume than meets the nose.

First, the concoction needs a base to which the various volatile oils which comprise the perfume’s unique scent can be added. The base, or fixative, is the liquid glue that keeps these oils suspended in whatever dilutes them, while retarding evaporation.

One of the most commonly used fixatives was (and in places still is) a substance called ambergris. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s a waxy mass produced in the intestines of Sperm Whales, which is passed along with fecal matter, or vomited into the ocean, where it floats around, eventually washing up on shore. Fresh ambergris reeks strongly of poo. Here’s what Charles Lillie, master perfumer, says about it in 1822: “Ambergris alone, in a lump, will give out so strong an odour, at each opening of the box or case in which it is contained, as to perfume the largest chamber, and even a whole house, if left open for only five minutes. This may be done with a piece of ten or twelve ounces in weight, every day for a great number of years, and still neither the quality nor the weight will be at all lessened.”

Due to fishing rules governing the slaughter of whales, it is no longer considered a target one can eviscerate a whale to get one’s hands on; one must stumble across a chunk of it, the whale having given it up for commercial use voluntarily. While ambergris commands a hefty price, the whale from whose guts it came is not compensated.


Melville predictably spends a lot of time talking about ambergris in Moby Dick, remarking that it’s odd that “fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.” The noble whale provided 18th century society with quite a lot, as it happens, from bone for corsets to blubber for oil and everything in between.

During the deadly and misguided days of human history that marked the “smell theory of disease,” people carried lumps of ambergris with them to forestall the Plague by perfuming the air about them and thus getting rid of plaguey air. They did not survive.

These two recipes – from 1822 and 1742 respectively, both use horse dung as an incubator to brew the tincture, the vigorous microbial action providing just the right amount of measured heat to do the job. It’s rather poetic that a smelly substance produced by the gut requires another smelly substance produced by the gut in order to make sweet perfume.

The British Perfumer, Charles Lillie, 1822



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