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Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris Hardcover – May 15, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“In this wonderful—and surprisingly gripping—book, Christopher Kemp examines the curious history of one of the world's rarest and most magical substances. This is natural history done well.”

(Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein)

“Following on the scent of what must be the strangest known natural substance, Christopher Kemp’s adventure-filled journey into the often-bizarre world of ambergris takes us from whale innards to remote islands. A compelling narrative, a detective story, and a wonderful window into history and obsession, Floating Gold has struck a rich oceanic seam. With its mixture of scientific rigor, evocative travelogue, and eccentric personalities, Kemp’s book finally uncovers the secrets of this elusive and extraordinary stuff. His book lingers like the smell of ambergris itself.”

(Philip Hoare, author of The Whale)

“Christopher Kemp’s delightful pursuit of all things ambergris has resulted in a wonderful and engagingly personal book on one of the world’s most mysterious and alluring substances. Floating Gold is a fascinating tale of obsession, the limits of science, avarice, suspicion, secrecy, and the desire to create the perfect perfume. It’s a pleasure to read.”

(Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan: A History of Whaling in America)

“Occupying a near-mythical niche somewhere between truffles and unicorn’s horn, ambergris is one of the rarest, most valuable substances in nature. It is also one of the most poorly understood—until now. With Floating Gold, Kemp has assembled the first comprehensive picture of a unique substance—an essence, really—that has inspired obsession and jealous secrecy for centuries and that, to this day, remains as precious as gold. With humor, insight, and the dogged determination of a Victorian scientist, Kemp takes us around the world and into the arcane and obsessive demimonde of ambergris seekers, traders, and high-end parfumiers. In so doing, he illuminates a world previously known to only a handful of people.”

(John Vaillant, author of The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival)

“Ambergris! Perhaps nature’s strangest and rarest gift—one could walk the shores for a lifetime and come up empty-handed. Christopher Kemp’s lovely quest tale put me in mind of an afternoon, several years ago, when I opened a dusty letter in the archive of an old whale scientist: suddenly the room burst with the smell of violets, musk, and fresh-hewn wood. To the sheet was taped a little dab of greasy gum, with a note reading, ‘Could this be it?’ Indeed it was! Would that a little piece of the magic could be tipped inside every copy of Floating Gold. Read it, for it’s as close as one can get without the stuff itself.”

(D. Graham Burnett, author of The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in)

“Christopher Kemp weaves fascinating facts about sperm whales (bulls weigh 50 tons and consume up to a ton of food a day), ambergris’s central role in creating the world’s perfumes, and personal reflections about his quest for ambergris into a pleasing, easy-flowing story. Much of the book recounts spectacular past and recent finds of ambergris and the secretive individuals who search for the elusive substance. They’re so secretive that one collector reportedly walked backward to ‘disguise the direction he was traveling.’ And Kemp’s descriptions of the close-mouthed ambergris traders provide a satisfying glimpse into a little-known parallel universe in which readers vicariously share the thrill of the hunt and dreams of fortune that drive the ambergris obsessed.”

(Publishers Weekly)

"In this entertaining natural history, molecular biologist and columnist Christopher Kemp recounts two years of obsessively combing beaches and visiting tight-lipped experts to discover the secrets of the international ambergris trade."

“Christopher Kemp holds no world records (well, except hands-down for the best book ever written about ambergris), but after a childhood in Birmingham he found himself at the University of Otago, on the South Island of New Zealand, where he began his obsessive quest for ambergris. . . .You probably haven’t spent many sleepless nights wondering where ambergris comes from or what it smells like, but I know that Floating Gold will enchant and surprise you with its answers to these and countless other questions, and you will now be able to dazzle your uninformed friends who otherwise would know nothing about how faecal impactions and French perfume go together.”

(Richard Ellis Times (UK))

Floating Gold will appeal to those who have a keen interest in the ingredients that go into the perfumes that they love and wear. It will also make essential reading for any would-be perfumer or anyone with a keen interest in the natural (and unnatural) materials that make up the perfumers palette.”

“Christpher Kemp’s engrossing study takes us through history, tales of present-day hunters and cetacean science, poking its nose into the perfume industry on the way.”


"Ambergris is the kind of singularity—in nature and in human affairs—that cries out for investigation by an obsessed scientist who can write well. In Christopher Kemp, the world’s most lusted-after poop has found its man."

“It’s hard not to fall in love with ambergris, or the concept of ambergris as the unknowable embodiment of the sea, along with Christopher Kemp.”
(The Millions)

“Kemp manages to infuse each windy walk on the shore with an air of true mystery. Each foray seems as if it could be the right one, and I found myself peeking at the end to find out whether or not he succeeds.”

(Weekly Standard)

“Carefully and thoughtfully written, Christopher Kemp's Floating Gold can take a place on the bookshelf among my favorite natural histories. Those peer at their subject from many angles, combining facts with observations of the places and people that have become part of its history. Kemp (a molecular biologist) tells stories about ambergris: fragrant stuff, produced in the gut of the sperm whale, that for centuries has been both a prized commodity and a compellingly mysterious substance. . . . Floating Gold offers an enticing initiation into the shadowy and intriguing history of ambergris.”


“The history that Kemp, a molecular biologist and journalist, presents here illustrates the process of how an understanding of natural history on any topic typically matures from its nascent, speculative beginnings. The relaxed writing style is characterized by a justly parsimonious ability to describe locations, objects, and people. Clearly, the author's observational skills are well honed."


About the Author

Christopher Kemp is a molecular biologist who currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and two sons. He has worked as a columnist for Cincinnati CityBeat, and his science writing has appeared on Salon.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; First Ed., First printing edition (May 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780226430362
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226430362
  • ASIN: 0226430367
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #648,095 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Nadine on May 1, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found this book to be fascinating! The secrecy and clandestine nature of the history of such a rare commodity as authentic ambergris is present to this very day. The author of this fine, small tome has grazed the edges of veiled threat by pursuing information about the places and people who hunt for beach-cast ambergris, and his inquiry into this cloistered `club' was met with the most emphatic ostracism and silence.

Since most people will never see or smell ambergris, or even care that it exists, it's not surprising that the subject has so little in-depth and reliable documentation. Do many people even know that it had value as a gourmet condiment throughout history, and was/is one of the gems of the perfume industry? Most mention of it seems to be anecdotal in nature. And because there is so much confusion about even identifying it, and obtaining even the smallest piece is a trial of some expense and trust, it really has fallen into the realm of myth, rather than reality.

Mr. Kemp, inflamed by a sensational local New Zealand newscast, tenaciously pursued a way to satisfy his own curiosity about this product of Sperm whale excrement, and this adventure, while undoubtedly intensely frustrating at times, is really worth reading about. He encounters many closed doors and is given the cold shoulder the majority of the time, but his sincerity was apparent to some, and they allowed him to step into the back room of museums and personal collections to analyze the properties that most of us would like to understand about ambergris, and he punctuates this with peoples subjective perceptions of how the different grades of it smell and feel.

I think this book was sorely needed and Mr. Kemp did a splendid job fleshing out some of the reality of the back-breaking and risky business of the ambergris trade. He does this with the perfect balance of empirical evidence and a sense of humor. BTW, where can I get a bottle of 'Eau de Christopher Kemp?
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Stephen on April 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have to admit that I expected Floating Gold by C Kemp to end up on my coffee table, quickly and mostly unread. Like any other book on natural history or marine biology, I expected a reference and catalogue of interesting pictures about a curious and often forgotten or misunderstood product of sperm whales. However, I began skimming the first chapter early one Saturday morning. A few hours later, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my original expectations were completely wrong. The book actually tells a story, and one I found difficult to put on the coffee table. Not only of Kemp's education and intense search for this curious byproduct of sperm-whale digestive problems, but also of people, misguided treaties and laws, history, greed and generosity. Kemp skillfully and simply covers the complex issues of molecular chemistry around the value of ambergris -- and it's role in the perfume industry. Even before I finished the book, I wanted to feel and smell this floating gold for myself... If you have any interest in natural history, marine biology or even an excellent narrative, Floating Gold will be an expected valuable read that will stimulate your curiosity and might make you search for the ambergris yourself.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Ross L. Urrere on May 8, 2012
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This is a wonderful book that will save you many hundreds of hours of research if you are at all interested in Ambergris. It is also a very well done story which is quite fun to read. I use Ambergris in incense and perfumes that I make and was thrilled to finally find something that gives some great insight into the scientific as well as hunt for ambergris on the beaches. For a substance that is so sought after by some very influential luxury companies there has been very little published on the subject so this is a treat.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By koti on May 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
A really enjoyable read of a rare product with a rich history. From the beaches of New Zealand to the windswept coast of Massachusetts we are taken on a journey for a rare glimpse of a clandestine industry. The eccentric charachters involved in this trade are described in great detail as are the exotic locales like Stewart Island and the cold climes of Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand. Highly recommended to be enjoyed with a good cup of coffee overlooking the ocean, I know my next beach trip will be enhanced by this book!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Searcher on May 13, 2012
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Chris Kemp has written an exceptionally entertaining book, giving a first hand account of the pursuit of one of the rarest and strangest substances known to man, peppered with anecdotes and historical references, shining a spotlight on the international trade, the colourful characters involved and the hard won fortunes that can be made.. It will make your next trip to the beach, possibly the most lucrative trip of your life!! Enjoy
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Brian Mueller on June 16, 2012
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At times it is difficult to believe this book is non-fiction! Ambergris seems like the stuff of legends; no more probable than a Yeti. But this is a real substance, incubated in the gut of a whale and finely-aged by ocean currents. Perhaps I grew up too far from the coast to ever learn about such a valuable substance which has been venerated for centuries. Had it not been for the author's sojourn to New Zealand, many people would still be unaware of this pungent and precious excretion. Overall Kemp does a great job bringing the reader along on his journey to uncover what little science is known about ambergris, and the black markets upon which it is traded.
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