Whale vomit, faeces and urine... what's really in your perfume?
That scent you wear everyday isn't all hearts and flowers, it's actually sourced from a seedy animal underbelly - the very thing that makes us crave it
Published 20/04/2016 | 02:30
An English couple hit an unlikely jackpot the other day when - lured by the stench of rotting fish - they stumbled across a lump of whale detritus on a Lancashire beach. Ambergris, a product of the digestive system of sperm whales, has long been deployed by perfumers to add a certain something to their wares, despite its unpropitious air.
Eagle-eyed, and clearly robustly-nosed engineer Gary Williams described his find as smelling "like a cross between squid and farmyard manure."
Nevertheless, this unprepossessing 1.57kg Morecombe Bay nugget is expected to go on sale for something in the region of €63,000 - a windfall with which Mr Williams hopes to purchase a static caravan. He and wife Angela are in negotiations with prospective buyers in France and New Zealand. Another 2.7kg lump was found in the area three years ago, valued at €150,000.
Despite conservation fears, ambergris remains in ingredient lists - in Dior's Poison, Molinard's Habitana and Creed's Green Irish Tweed, for example - presumably in its synthetic form of ambroxan.
Those of us who have inhaled it will not forget the experience. Fragrance entrepreneur Roja Dove once unveiled a block for me over cocktails at Claridge's in London - an act that we were rather more enthusiastic about than our fellow drinkers.
Traditionally considered to be vomitous in origin, now thought to be faecal, and largely comprised of undigested squid beaks, ambergris may bob about in the ocean for 30 years before being washed up.
As it floats, a white film forms on its greyish exterior as it oxidises in salt water. The lighter the hue, the longer the piece will have been at sea and the lighter and sweeter its scent; lighter and sweeter being relative terms for an object that can only be described as dank, fishy and disturbing - if rather unearthily fantastic.
And, yet, what poetry it becomes in the alchemy of perfume. James Craven, historian and archivist for perfumery Les Senteurs, enthuses: "Ambergris lends a scent a tenacious depth, richness, opulence, smoothness, ambiguity, and an unsettling 'do I love it, or hate it?' quality. It prompts the intriguing thought: 'I am divinely scented and delicious, but am I entirely clean?'
"Its use can seem rather mythical on investigation, not least now the world is so whale wary. Creed certainly uses it in many of the House's 20th-century scents.
"It was in Miss Dior and Rochas's original Femme. And I can vouch for its appearance in the Coronation Oil, the chrism made for Charles I and more or less replicated for Elizabeth II. I have smelled it: neroli, spices, rose and real ambergris."
Still, whale excrement isn't the half of it. People may like to think of perfume as being all hearts and flowers, however, it is its seedy, animal underbelly that makes us crave it. Countless classics contain more than a glimpse of "something nasty in the woodshed": primitive, distinctly feral base notes that belie the bouquets in their upper spheres.
Many of perfumery's most venerable creations owe their sensuality to the use of animal ingredients with a certain "spray" element. There is civet, a faecal paste extracted from the anal glands of the civet cat, traditionally harvested by poking caged cats where the sun doesn't shine. Today's animal magic mostly comes in synthetic guise. However, the gutsiness of fragrances such as Chanel No 5 and Guerlain's Shalimar is owed to this tradition.
Musk secreted from the sheath gland of the musk deer is at its most redolent in Dana's Tabu. Castoreum, a leathery emission from the genital scent sacs of the castor beaver (and my own personal favourite) is ripely evident in Balmain's Jolie Madame.
Craven points to the use of the oil hyraceum - "basically made from the fossilised urine and faeces of a sort of dirty prairie dog" in Papillon Perfumes' Salome.
"It smells as you would expect - really most intriguing."
Certainly, it makes the current excitement over Boots' decision to include gooseberry in its latest No 7 wonder serum seem rather excessive.
Perfumers have never been backward about coming forward in using such ingredients to conjure life's wilder side. Early 20th-century genius Jacques Guerlain - creator of Jicky, Shalimar and Mitsouko - noted that his perfumes should recall "the underside" of his mistress, while designer Tom Ford declared that he wanted his Black Orchid to smell "like a man's crotch".
The mid-20th century perfumer Germaine Cellier was inspired to create Piguet's Bandit by dragging the drawers off models as they returned from the catwalk and burying her nose deep in them. Such flights of fancy are known as "knicker scents".
Generations of scent sensualists have endeavoured to add outré elements to their concoctions, be it sweat, semen, underarm odour, soiled skin, clammy saddles, breast milk, curry, petrol, alcohol, rotting roses, oral abscesses, dirt, tobacco, industrial buildings, lunar landscapes, and - in the case of enfants terribles perfumers Christoph Hornetz and Christophe Laudamiel - the scent of a virgin's navel.
Should all this come as an unpleasant surprise, James Craven provides comfort and explanation: "We humans explore ourselves through scent, find our shadow side, that often resented, even sinister, darker self. And so perfume is by no means all sweetness and light, moonbeams and gardenias.
"Scent can be therapeutic, like a rigorous session with the psychoanalyst, helping us to realise our potential, and come to terms with our inner, often unspeakable urges."
He adds: "We can 'work through' our neuroses via the perfume cabinet and may even start to enjoy these aspects. Fragrance - like ghostly marsh lights - can lead us into, and through the mire."
© Daily Telegraph