Waxy substance (about 80percnt cholesterol) formed in the intestine of sperm whales, used chiefly as a spice in the East and for fixing the scent of fine perfumes in the West. It is thought to form as a collection of feces around indigestible parts of squid and other prey of the whale. Fresh ambergris is soft, black, and smelly; exposed to sunlight, air, and seawater, it hardens, fades, and develops a pleasant scent. It may wash ashore or be found floating or in the bodies of slaughtered whales. Pieces are usually small, but the largest have weighed almost 1,000 lb (450 kg).
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Ambergris has a peculiar sweet, earthy odor (similar to isopropyl alcohol). The principal historical use of ambergris was as a fixative in perfumery, though it has now been largely displaced by synthetics.
Ambergris can be found in the Atlantic Ocean; on the coasts of Brazil and Madagascar; and on the coast of Africa, of the East Indies, The Maldives, mainland China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Molucca islands. However, most commercially collected ambergris comes from the Bahama Islands and Providence Island in the Caribbean.
In this developed condition, ambergris has a specific gravity ranging from 0.780 to 0.926. It melts at about 62 °C to a fatty, yellow resinous liquid; and at 100 °C it is volatilized into a white vapor. It is soluble in ether, and in volatile and fixed oils. Ambergris is relatively nonreactive to acid. White crystals of a substance called ambrein can be separated from ambergris by heating raw ambergris in alcohol, then allowing the resulting solution to cool.
As of 2006, raw ambergris fetches approximately US$10 per gram, with much higher prices possible for particularly high-quality samples. In the United States, importing, buying, or selling ambergris — including ambergris that has washed ashore — was considered a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. However, in 2001 this ruling was overturned, and ambergris was deemed not to be a byproduct of the whaling industry, since the whale expels this substance naturally. There is currently no prohibition in the buying and selling of ambergris in the United States.
This substance has also been used historically as a flavouring for food. In some cases, people consider ambergris as an aphrodisiac. During the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.
Ambergris was also moulded, dried, decorated and worn as jewellery, particularly during the European Renaissance. It was often formed into beads.