Article in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic:
Ambergris is the unlikeliest of perfume ingredients. The nuggets start forming as a slurry in the guts of sperm whales around stomach irritants like squid beaks, then are ejected into the ocean. (Once thought to be spewed, they’re now believed to be excreted.) The scent is said to be dunglike at first but grows musky after exposure to seawater and air. For centuries perfumers have capitalized on the ability of amergris, which is collected along shorelines, to amplify fragrances and fix them to the skin. But the sea mammal’s endangered status might limit supply, so nonanimal options are being explored. Among them: Molecular biologist Joerg Bohlmann’s team has found a way to reproduce a balsam fir compound that provides a perfume fixative, without cetacean input.