Moby Dick and a Darn Good Oil

Moby Dick, uncommon oils and the one immutable law of business.

By Andrew Burnett - 7 Min Read

“But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.” -Herman Melville, Moby Dick

What a large forehead you have, my dear.

One hundred and sixty-odd years ago, as Herman Melville penned the last chapters of Moby Dick, whaling was a global business dominated by the United States. At its peak, whaling was the United States' fifth-largest industry, a perch held by manufacturing today. Why were whales pursued to the end of the earth? The butchered whale provided ambergris for fine perfumes, baleen for everything from umbrellas to corsets, meat for eating, bones for trophies and tools, oil for lubrication and, most importantly, illumination. Before widespread use of petroleum and electrification, whale oil lamps brought light to the dark.

Ambergris-a solid mass from the intestine of the sperm whale. We’re still unsure how it gets out.

Despite the great bounty of the gentle whale, it is not unlimited. The oceans, though expansive, offered insufficient shelter from a ravenous man. Even after petroleum and electrification made the slaughter not clearly profitable, some whaling ground on like a death march–until activist environmental groups launched one of the most successful environmental campaigns ever. Groups such as Greenpeace pestered whaling boats and publicized the shameful butchery of noble, graceful mammals that feel pain and mourn. The public was horrified. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission, responding to public outcry, halted commercial whaling. The ban remains imperfectly in effect today.

The most precious of all whale oils–there were many types and grades–was spermaceti oil. Only found in the spermaceti organ of the Sperm whale (initially incorrectly identified as the whales’ sperm, the name endured, from Latin sperma ‘sperm’ + cetus ‘of a whale.’) The spermaceti organ is a large chamber in the distinctively mountainous forehead of the sperm whale. It likely assists in echolocation (locating objects using sound) and buoyancy during dives over a mile deep. What does the sperm whale do at such unfathomable, black depths? Wages everlasting war against the kraken–the giant squid. Spermaceti oil was valuable. It has a sweet smell, long shelf life, and burns clean. Humans used spermaceti oil for light, skincare, and industrial applications. Interestingly, spermaceti oil is not technically an oil; it is a liquid wax. As whaling threatened the gentle sperm whale with extinction, the supply of this valuable resource grew limited.

"In an interesting evolutionary quirk, jojoba wax is chemically similar to spermaceti oil and sebum–the natural oils produced by healthy skin."

In 1935, researchers at the University of Arizona noted that the oil from the jojoba plant (pronounced ho-ho-ba), a shrub indigenous to the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern US, is chemically different from other seed and nut plants. Olive, almond, coconut and other seed oil plants produce triglycerides–fatty, digestible oils.  The jojoba plant followed its unique evolutionary path; its cells do not produce triglycerides. Instead, jojoba synthesizes liquid wax esters that protect the jojoba plant from arid sun and heat. Interestingly, according to ScienceDirect, “Jojoba oil is very similar to spermaceti oil and can be used to replace it… In some respects, jojoba oil is even better than spermaceti oil, having the great advantage that it needs no special purification.” Adding to the evolutionary quirk, jojoba is much more similar to the sebum–the natural oils produced by healthy skin–than triglyceride oils.

Jojoba shrub–surthrival

It is worth pondering the cost of whaling in mutilated bodies, depravity, death and collapsing ecosystems–for man and whale alike–when a better option was present and well known to the Yaqui, Pima and other indigenous peoples of the Sonoran desert. We should’ve asked.

Ira Hayes, leftmost–Proud Pima

As the people indigenous to the Sonoran Desert have long known, jojoba oil is uncommonly beneficial to your skin. Triglyceride oils are fats, they evolved as a means to encourage consumption by animals–spreading seeds in digestive tracts. Some triglyceride oils react clumsily on the skin. They can be oily, non-breathable and less beneficial for the skin barrier. Because jojoba evolved for protection from a harsh climate instead of ingestion, it interacts with skin differently. Researchers at the Universities of Arizona and Michigan identified how jojoba heals dry, irritated skin. It reduces transepidermal water loss without blocking the exchange of gases and water vapor, moisturizing and softening skin by forming a breathable barrier and diffusing into the intercellular matrix–the space between your skin cells. As it protects a hearty desert shrub, jojoba even affords some protection from light.

"The one immutable law of business–it will be what we make."

At Drew’s Honeybees, we scoured the globe for the finest carrier “oils” to anchor our products. As demand has grown, jojoba remains more expensive than most triglyceride oils. However, we shun shortcuts to bring our customers the best. And there ain’t no other jojoba.

Most fundamentally, I see one immutable law of commerce–it will be what we make. If we choose to butcher whales, foul ecosystems and push earth’s climate into territory unknown to us, it will be so. If we choose to work within ecosystems, accept our role in our outcome and make goodness more important than a good name, it will also be so. I hope you do not dismiss yourself with the insignificance of your actions. You could also believe you are a mighty creature, formed for noble deeds.  Again, it might just be so.

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