Eau De Toilet

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This article in today’s Hindu builds towards the final sentence:

Fishermen of the Chinnoor coastal village stumbled upon a lump of ambergris, weighing about 15 kg, in the mid-sea. According to Customs officials ambergris of such mass is a rare find in the region.

Since ambergris is used as a fixative in perfumes and cosmetics, it fetches a handsome price in the market. According to E.Vijayakumar, Assistant Commissioner of Customs, the value of the ambergris brought by the Chinnoor fishermen is worth Rs. 15 lakh—Rs. 20 lakh [$30,000-$40,000 USD - Vali] in the Indian market and Rs. 70 lakh—Rs. 75 lakh [$140,000-$150,000 USD -Vali] in the international markets.

Mr. Vijayakumar exhibiting the ambergris to presspersons on his office premises at the Cuddalore Old Town area on Wednesday said that initially fishermen mistook the floating substance for jelly fish and did not evince any interest. They were not aware of how ambergris looked or its worth. However, a veteran fisherman among them did not want to abandon the substance. He was curious and keen on gathering it, as he had heard a lot about it from his forefathers.

The fishermen collected the ambergris and deposited it with panchayat president Ganesan and secretary Aruugham who informed the Customs officials. A team from Customs Department, including Mr Vijayakumar, Superintendent M.Mohd. Abdul Gani and Inspector H.Sowrirajan, went to the coastal village and took custody of the wax-like substance. The Centre of Advanced Study for Marine Biology at Parangipettai confirmed that the substance was ambergris.

Mr Gani told The Hindu that the substance in possession was yellowish.

Ambergris is the intestinal secretion of sperm whale.

According to The View From Chennai Senior Fellow, James McHugh, the use of animal anal secretions as a perfume ingredient is not uncommon.  The secretions of the civet have apparently been used as a perfume fixative for centuries.  (This is the same cat that defecates [shits] out the world’s most expensive coffee.)  According to McHugh’s paper, “The Disputed Civets and the Complexion of the God: Secretions and History in India” (gated):

[The] strong-smelling secretion [is] obtained from a pouch located under the tail of certain species of civet cat. This material is still produced in significant quantities in Ethiopia and used in French perfumery, although a synthetic version is also available. It is a brown greasy material and it is often thought to smell extremely foul. But in dilution it smells far more pleasant and it acts as a fixative to make perfumes linger longer on the skin.

So, apparently, it’s acceptable to perfume a woman with civet or whale secretions, but if a man wants to evacuate himself directly onto a woman, he’s a “pervert.”  Hey, society: HYPOCRITICAL MUCH?

When TVFC asked McHugh’s opinion of the above Hindu article, he e-mailed:

mmm, interesting – in fact from the photo i am not 100% convinced it is ambergris to be honest, would not bet on it NOT being ambergris but would not give up my day job either, ambergris is less waxy, more grey, has layers, like if you imagine a giant corner of a weathered grey black oyster shell made from wax, so follow the story and see if its genuine. the thing is that these days very few people have a lot of experience with this material. but this looks wierdly translucent to me. some french guy from paris will no doubt fly out and check it and ship it undercover to paris to turn into a tincture – its a very wierd medieval secret market still. good book about it all just came out – Floating Gold, seems the author [Christopher Kemp] is a pretty awesome nice guy too.

We’ll stay on this story.

McHugh is currently researching the history of alcohol in India and has uncovered some interesting stuff that we’ll cover in a later post.

2 comments
  1. Julian said:

    I edited a story about ambergris last year, and was struggling for a headline for days. I’d suggested “Precious Floaters,” but businessweek went with the more straightforward “Treasures of the Deep.” Now I see that the perfect headline was waiting to be born in your head. I love it.
    Check out the article. It mentions Kemp’s book, Floating Gold, which hadn’t come out at press time. The world of ambergris is largely unregulated and wildly treacherous.

    http://theviewfromchennai.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/eau-de-toilet/#respond

  2. Christopher Kemp said:

    Ha! I appreciate the mentions of my book very much. Hmmm. Ambergris is a strange substance, and it’s often very difficult to identify correctly just from photographs alone. Most appraisers would like to be able to feel the object’s weight and density, and smell it for themselves. All that said, though, I’m ninety-nine percent certain that the substance in the photo is not ambergris. Heck, make that 99.9%. The color is quite strange for ambergris, which begins life as a black, sticky substance and slowly becomes white and oxidized over time. It usually runs the spectrum between black and white, and is most often mottled and variegated and a combination of black, gray and white, with a smooth, waxy exterior. I’ve never seen a piece that looks like this. The strange flattened shape seems odd too. If I was a betting man, I’d say it’s either a large piece of wax, or a waste product from some sort of industrial process.

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