Ambergris comes in many colours, shapes and textures. This makes identification difficult and ensures frustration for beachcombers on the hunt for this elusive substance. Ambergris is most often white, grey, black or brown in colour or even a mixture of these shades. In shape; ambergris can be flat or square but often rounded, oval shapes appear on the beaches, probably due to the rolling and smoothing action that the ocean waves would have over a period of time, even years. If black in colour, the texture may be soft and sticky like melting tar. Most often it is hard yet waxy and may have a powdery like white coating. It can also be described as having the texture of hard, dry clay.

Ambergris has an unusual odour which is difficult to explain to anyone who has never had the pleasure of its sensual aroma. Ambergris is often described as being musky and having a sweet earthy aroma unlike any other, or a mossy fragrance reminiscent of the damp forest floor. Depending on the quality of the ambergris there can be a great variation in the fragrance. Poor quality or fresh ambergris (which is black and sticky) is fairly offensive in fragrance. If you can imagine scented cow dung you will be on the right track. Many people expect ambergris to have a very strong or foul odour, but this is not the case. In general, lighter coloured pieces of ambergris have a subtle, pleasant smell. The base animal (manure) odour fades as the ambergris cures. However, the white and grey varieties, in particular, possess the subtle, sweet addictive aroma that beachcombing dreams are made of.

Try this simple 'do it yourself' test to check any unusual items you have found. It can not be relied on to provide a positive ID, unless you are thoroughly familiar with the required result. However, the test result may indicate whether it is worth pursuing the enquiry further.

Hot needle test:


Heat a needle and touch briefly to the surface of the item


If ambergris, the surface will melt instantly; turning to an oily, molten black residue and a small puff of musky smelling smoke will be emitted.

If you think you may have found some ambergris but you are still not sure; you can visit our 'sell ambergris' page for an appraisal.

You can also check the "Look-alike" page for photos and descriptions of those materials most commonly mistaken for ambergris


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