1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ambergris
AMBERGRIS (Ambra grisea, Ambre gris, or grey amber), a solid, fatty, inflammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour, the shades being variegated like marble, possessing a peculiar sweet, earthy odour. It occurs as a biliary concretion in the intestines of the spermaceti whale (Physeter macrocephalus), and is found floating upon the sea, on the sea-coast, or in the sand near the sea-coast. It is met with in the Atlantic Ocean; on the coasts of Brazil and Madagascar; also on the coast of Africa, of the East Indies, China, Japan and the Molucca islands; but most of the ambergris which is brought to England comes from the Bahama Islands, Providence, &c. It is also sometimes found in the abdomen of whales, always in lumps of various shapes and sizes, weighing from ½ oz. to 100 or more pounds. Ambergris, when taken from the intestinal canal of the sperm whale, is of a deep grey colour, soft consistence and a disagreeable smell. On exposure to the air it gradually hardens, becomes pale and develops its peculiar sweet, earthy odour. In that condition its specific gravity ranges from 0·780 to 0·926. It melts at about 62° C. to a fatty, yellow resinous-like liquid; and at 100° C. it is volatilized into a white vapour. It is soluble in ether, and in volatile and fixed oils; it is only feebly acted on by acids. By digesting in hot alcohol, a substance termed ambrein, closely resembling cholesterin, is obtained, which separates in brilliant white crystals as the solution cools. The use of ambergris in Europe is now entirely confined to perfumery, though it formerly occupied no inconsiderable place in medicine. In minute quantities its alcoholic solution is much used for giving a “floral” fragrance to bouquets, washes and other preparations of the perfumer. It occupies a very important place in the perfumery of the East, and there it is also used in pharmacy and as a flavouring material in cookery. The high price it commands makes it peculiarly liable to adulteration, but its genuineness is easily tested by its solubility in hot alcohol, its fragrant odour, and its uniform fatty consistence on being penetrated by a hot wire.