A 200-year-old fragrance originally made for Marie Antoinette was reproduced in limited quantities a few years back, for a staggering $11,000 a bottle. The main ingredient was ambergris, a rare rocklike substance that exudes a special scent all its own. The best ambergris goes for $10,000 per pound, and one lucky 8-year-old in England has very likely stumbled upon a large piece on his local beach.
"Charlie and I were just out for a normal walk on our local beach, with the dog, when he found this waxy-looking rock," Alex Naysmith, the boy's father, told ABC News. "He's always picking up stuff, and he was joking that it was really heavy. In fact, it was quite light and it reminded me of something I saw on the news that a New Zealand couple found."
Naysmith said they took it home to Google what it was. Although only a local marine biologist in southern England has examined it so far, the strange-looking rock that Charlie picked up will likely fetch $65,000. And that's not the best bit - ambergris, far from a French-sounding semi-precious rock, is actually whale feces.
"Headlines like 'Moby Sick Makes Boy Rich' reveal the popular misconception of ambergris as whale vomit. It's poop," Christopher Kemp, a molecular biologist told ABC News. Kemp is the author of the book "Floating Gold: the Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris." He dubbed the process of creating a chunk of ambergris, like the one Naysmith found, as "one unlikelihood piled on top of another," saying that "only one percent of the 350,00 sperm whales can actually make it. Then once they excrete it, it has to float around the ocean for decades to be of any value."
Naysmith told ABC News that their piece of ambergris "definitely looks like" it's been floating around for years, and that he invites any experts to come and examine it definitively.
"You can't tell by just looking at it. Sometimes it's mistaken for animal fat, and the kid's one could be that," said Kemp. "But if it is real ambergris, because it's so rare, it's very valuable."
According to scientists, when sperm whales dine on squid, they protect themselves by secreting a fatty substance in their intestines to surround the squid's beaks. Eventually whales excrete these large lumps of ambergris, up to hundreds of pounds at a time.
Kemp said that each piece smells a bit different, and luxury perfumers say that the smallest amount makes the biggest difference to a given fragrance.
"One drop of ambergris can change a perfume," Claire Payne, an aroma therapist and perfumer told ABC News. "It's what we call an animalic smell, different to the citrusy or fruity scents. It's like musk, and we use it in several of our fragrances," she added.
Ambergris has a scent all its own-derived from its chemical component ambrein-that it imparts to popular perfumes such as Chanel No. 5. It's often described as an odd, a fragrant in fact, mixture of tobacco, rotting wood and even furniture polish, in high demand by perfume makers because it prolongs a perfume's scent. Roja Dove, the so-called King of Fragrance and one of the most knowledgeable people in the world when it comes to perfume, uses ambergris in a signature scent called Scandal Pour Homme that sells in luxury stores for $280 per 100ml bottle. Adrienne Beuse, the owner of one of the only international trader of raw ambergris in New Zeland, told Bloomberg Businesweek that it's one of the few recession-proof commodities: "If I have the supply, I'll always be able to sell it," she said.
Alex Naysmith said that his son wants to use the money from his lucky find to build some kind of animal shelter. "He's enjoying the attention he's been getting, but I doubt it'll last. He has a club in school that he started to look after animals, and would like to keep going with that."
Asked what he thinks about the possibility of earning tens of thousands of dollars for a seemingly random rock find, Naysmith said that, although he's been back to the beach to look for more, he "wouldn't really mind either way."
While possession of amberis is illegal in the U.S. since 1972 because it comes from endangerd sperm whales, Naysmith is free to sell the $60,000-plus valued substance.
All because a whale suffered some indigestion years ago.
- Living Nature