Ambergris: The lucrative perfume ingredient found on Ireland's west coast
Irish ambergris, a waxy substance secreted by sperm whales, commands high prices
Beachcomber Patrick Lillis of Celtic Ambergris, with his dog, Dash, is a seasoned beachcomber from Co Clare and an authority on ambergris, which he hunts for on Irish coasts
Of all the familiar natural ingredients in luxury fragrances – rose, iris, jasmine, sandalwood, patchouli – it is ambergris, found on the Atlantic seaboard of Ireland, that is considered the finest, most sought after and most valuable of them all. Irish ambergris commands high prices – a rare 25g piece currently on global marketplace Etsy carries a tag of €625.
Secreted by sperm whales who feed on cuttlefish and squid, it is a solid, waxy substance that when fresh has an unpleasant smell of rotting fish with a faecal farmyard element, but over time and in the sea air, develops a distinctive, curious scent. Herman Melville in Moby Dick recalled “the faint stream of perfume” from a dead whale.
Ambergris contains a chemical called ambrein that acts as a powerful fixative, making fragrances last longer as well as transforming any oil or tincture to which it is mixed. “It is both mysterious and magical and has the most beautiful sillage or scent trail and adds a third dimension particularly to florals,” says Patrick Lillis of Celtic Ambergris, a seasoned beachcomber from Co Clare and an authority on ambergris, which he has been hunting for for many years on Irish coasts.
Well known in the world of perfumery, with a high profile among niche perfumers, Lillis is one of the stars in Nose, a new documentary movie by Dior about their master perfumer François Demachy, creator of Dior Homme, Miss Dior, Sauvage and other fragrances for the storied French house since 2016.
Though rarely recorded in official documents, ambergris has been washed up on the Atlantic seaboard for centuries and was certainly traded. According to Lillis, tenants on the notorious Bingham estate in Mayo had to surrender ambergris to George Bingham, Earl of Lucan, in much the same way as sturgeon’s roe was surrendered to the Czar in Russia. Whale was historically considered a royal fish by the crown, owned by the queen or the state.
The documentary, called The First Smell Good Movie, made over two years, follows Demachy as he travels the world sourcing the finest ingredients for his fragrances from the farmers of patchouli in remote Sulawesi in Indonesia and the dedicated female rose growers in his native Grasse on the French Riviera to Calabria in southern Italy for the bergamot harvest and beyond, sniffing all the way.
In Ireland, the four-man French camera team based themselves in Westport, Co Mayo, and followed Lillis and his associate Johnny Bourke over a cold and windy St Patrick’s weekend two years ago as they traversed beaches and stony seashores with their two dogs Dash, a Labrador, and Mollie, a springer spaniel. Lillis is shown describing the three types of ambergris – the grey, the black and the white, the latter being the most expensive. Prof Steven Rowland of the University of Plymouth, an organic chemist, analysed a piece of white ambergris found by Lillis and established that it was 1,000 years old – or more. “Age determines its value generally,” says Lillis.
So how did it all start? “I read Moby Dick and all those tales of the sea, Long John Silver and all that, and growing up in Kilkee and working in the golf club, we would comb the beach when the tide was out. People knew about the bounty of the sea and would swim out to claim stuff. We brought in timber with a lot of effort and made a bit of money, though the tide would have brought it in more easily,” he recalls of his early beachcombing days.
Working mainly in social care for the Brothers of Charity in west Clare and the Centre for Independent Living in Mayo, his part-time beachcombing hobby became a more full-time occupation eight years ago.
Since then, “it has been an unending trip from north to south and from south to north and very much weather dependent”, he says. He has also travelled many times to the Hebrides where his friend Fergus Granville, owner of the Hebridean Smokehouse, is also an enthusiastic ambergris hunter. Another beachcombing buddy of Lillis, now in his 90s, is Sean Carney “who climbed down cliffs in his late 70s”, Lillis says admiringly.
Familiar with every beach and nook and cranny on the west coast of Ireland, Lillis sells any bounty to brokers and on Etsy to niche perfumers. “A little goes a long way, you only need a tiny percentage. Just a touch of ambergris will transform any oil. You would not be finding ambergris in commercial quantities. The best times are after major storms – large amounts were found after Hurricane Debbie in the early 60s.”
The biggest piece he ever found was in October 2019 in Achill Island, and the most valuable piece he has sold weighed just more than 1kg and sold for €15,000. But as he points out, it is only one in 100 sperm whales that will have ambergris and “they don’t come within 300 miles of Ireland unless they are lost because our waters are too shallow”.
Nonetheless it hasn’t stopped others trying to follow in his tracks. “You can spot them a mile away. We meet people racing ahead of us. There are professional hunters in west Cork and Kerry. The thing about this is that you have to be committed to it, particularly now. We are unlikely to find big bits because the common or garden beachcomber will find them beforehand. Most will find lumps which are basically from trawlers dumping oil which congeals into massive lumps. We want to be one step behind the whale and 10 steps before the opposition,” he says.
Drone footage showing the two men with their dogs heading along the dunes gives a dramatic panoramic view of the Wild Atlantic Way in Mayo. For Lillis, being associated with Nose is more than just showing what it takes to find ambergris: “It was more the chance to show off the beauty of the Irish landscape and its fantastic coastline”, which he obviously loves. The passion for that and for all who supply the ingredients for Demachy is obvious throughout the movie. As one of the flower growers in Grasse says, “Our feet are in the mud, but our heads are in the clouds.”
Nose: Inside Dior’s World of Perfume is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video and Google Play