Floating Gold

The Romance of Ambergris

Ambergris is perfume lab

Ambergris in a perfume laboratory: Two chunks, weighing eight pounds, lie on the table. The raw ambergris is ground in a mortar, added to 95% alcohol, and allowed to soak for six months or more, after which the tincture is filtered and introduced into fine perfumes.

Dedicated to the Memory of Frank Wood, Curator of the Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.


The career of a museum naturalist is sometimes regarded as a dusty one, but among its amenities are the unforeseen calls of interested, curious, inquisitive, mysterious, or merely crack-brained individuals, who, by one pretext or another, find their way into his laboratory with something to be identified. A preliminary sifting out by the man at the information desk usually staves off the bearer of a rock crystal from disturbing the curator of insects, or the proud owner of a hippopotamus tooth from barging into the department of Peruvian archaeology. However, there is no dependable bulwark against surprises.

The other day an attendant led into the ornithological sanctum a well-pleased youth carrying a large package, the contents of which he (the attendant) had sized up as the head of a bird. A monstrous beak did, indeed, protrude through the wrappings, but a loosening of the string disclosed the bleached, toothless, and weather-worn skull of a porpoise, picked up on the sands of the seashore.

“Very interesting,” the ornithologist probably said, politely; “the skeleton of the forward end of Tursiops truncatus—no doubt one that died—and the curator of mammals is just across the hall!”

But proceedings are not always so simple and overt. Telephone calls of a confidential nature may foreshadow the visit of the man with the dark secret. Letters of cryptic wording fail to reveal the precise nature of the what-is-it. Communications come from the possessor of the only nest and eggs of a humming bird ever found, or from the granddaughter of a clipper ship captain who has inherited the stuffed body of a bona fide mermaid of the China Sea. Such items are to be made the basis of transactions which will cost a tidy sum, but which will put the Museum definitely on the map.

While such opportunities come almost daily, it would be unfair to imply that even a tenth of the museum-minded public is self-seeking; on the contrary, the precious objects freely offered, About half the ambergris brought to me has been soap, which dissolves only slowly in salt water, but wax, paint, tallow, blue mud, bits of decayed fish, water-logged wood, the residue of picnickers’ lunches, coke, clinkers, and many other substances have also figured. declined with thanks, and carried away each year by their disillusioned owners would fill and sink the imaginary “Mayflower” that transported all the Colonial furniture to this continent.

Now of all the things presented for the inspection of that faithful servant of the public, the museum curator, the most romantic, and the least likely to be true, is ambergris. I say inspection, because identification is preconceived in the mind of the finder. His treasure, stumbled upon along the sea beach, recognized with the sudden surmise that dawns like knowledge from a previous incarnation, is encountered where ambergris belongs; it looks, and feels, and smells as ambergris should and, since it bears no resemblance to anything familiar, it follows that riches are already within his grasp.

However, confirmation is the capstone to personal certainty. “Some funny old cove at the Museum,” the finder reasons, “will know all about it. Moreover, such a practical thought as trying to horn in on my profits would never enter his head. Those museum birds don’t care about money, anyway. It will be a good idea to have it settled scientifically before I see the man who buys the stuff for Coty.”

During twenty years of museum work, the ambergris man or woman has sought me out approximately forty times. It is a pity that I neglected to make a record of each circumstance, because many details have slipped my mind. At any rate, if there were forty seekers, thirty-nine were doomed to disappointment. Of the lucky one, more later. As hinted above, the approach was frequently indirect.

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