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How to identify ambergris

If you have never seen, touched or smelt ambergris, it is highly unlikely you will be able to identify what you have; you will likely require help from those with experience, who deal regularly within this market. There are a few tests you can do at home, but none of their results can be considered conclusive in confirming whether you have ambergris or not. Only a lab test can provide definitive confirmation.

The following information serves to help eliminate materials which are NOT ambergris and identify those with potential.

If you are interested in searching for ambergris, you can always invest in a small piece to get an idea of its scent, feel and texture. Ambergris Connect can advise on this.Click Here

When it comes to the elusive and unchartered world of ambergris, we have found that it is in fact much more productive to refute samples as a result of them not meeting certain criteria, rather than to look for tests that prove the sample’s authenticity.

How to identify if you have found Ambergris

Colour Variations

Ambergris

One of the most commonly asked questions relating to ambergris is - as one would imagine - “what does it look like?” When it comes to the colour of ambergris, there are many shades that can reveal its quality.

  • Jet black – Fresh ambergris (very low in value) which smells strongly, and unpleasantly, of manure. Can be soft - not squidgy - with a very slightly malleable feel to it.
  • Dark grey – Can often feature a cracked, silvery white effect across its surfaces; the beginnings of oxidation.
  • Earthy brown – Less offensive in scent – sweeter and warmer, beginning to become more rounded and appealing to the nose.
  • Dull gold/copper tones – Generally never the dominant colour but can often be seen splashing and glimmering across the surface of (and inside) pieces of ambergris.
  • Light grey/silver/cream through to pure white – The rarest to come by; some of the lighter pieces may have succumbed completely to the oxidation process. These pieces are most certainly the older/oldest and have the most pleasant ‘perfume-like’ scent of any type of ambergris.

Genuine ambergris

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Image credit: Ambergris Connect, Joseph Delapp, Nabil Valiulla, Pat Lillis

Texture

Ambergris
  • Ambergris will have a slightly waxy feel to it and often appears grainy inside.
  • It should be brittle and may look layered inside, you may be able to see this if your find has a broken edge, but remember that breaking apart pieces devalues them if they are ambergris! If you need to break a piece off for the paper test it need only be very small, and you should be able to chip a piece off with a knife or other sharp implement.
  • You should just about be able to create a dent if you press your finger nail into your piece, but it should not be anywhere near as soft as candle wax, for example.
  • Squid beaks maybe present. Black, shiny and shell-like pieces embedded in the ambergris. They are small shards, at the most no larger than a thumbnail.
  • Your piece should feel lighter than you would imagine it to be when you pick it up - when compared to how it would feel picking up a piece of stone of a similar size.

Weight- Loss

Ambergris retains water-weight. This is lost mainly within the first couple of months, as the piece dries out. Keep in mind that the sale price is subject to the weight.

As each piece is individual and unique according to it’s age, location/journey and exposure to the elements, it is impossible to advise on how much or how fast weight-loss may occur. It is however logical to advise that the sooner the piece is sold into the market, the more it will retain/reflect its initial agreed value. At Ambergris Connect, we always consider this when facilitating a transaction, as it can affect both the buyer’s and seller’s benefits.

Ambergris lookalikes

Commonly mistaken for ambergris.

Image credit: Ambergris Connect

Things you should never do

Ambergris
  • Put your sample in water – this can interfere with its properties; Ambergris can reduce in value if not dried out correctly.
  • Store your sample in plastic, as this will cause condensation. Always keep your ambergris wrapped in cloth (such as cotton) or ideally in tin foil/aluminium foil.
  • Break a large piece in half or into smaller pieces – this may devalue it!

Misconceptions

Ambergris identification is a tricky field. If you search it on the internet, the common ‘go-to’ traits advised to watch out for are:

Numerous NEWS ARTICLES available on the internet report on various ambergris findings from over the years, but DO NOT BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ!! We are all familiar with the concept of “FAKE NEWS..”

If you study these articles closely, you will notice that publications actually confirm/commit to stating in black and white that the piece in question did eventually ACTUALLY SELL for as much as the headline claims it was worth, or whether it was in fact ever confirmed as ambergris, or whether it even sold at all!

The media coverage you see on the internet mostly features finds that weren’t ambergris (most it seems are palm oil – see what palm oil can look like on our identification page).

Keep in mind that the media are legally permitted to print any claim they wish (for example “the piece has been ESTIMATED at $500,000”) however they can only publish conclusive facts if they are true and have backing evidence (for example “the piece SOLD for $500,000”).

It is important not to get overly excited about, or base expectations on the selling prices alluded to on these sites; consider the possibility that the facts may be exaggerated and/or misquoted to make the story seem more impressive and ‘newsworthy’!

Laboratory Testing

"Ambergris samples can be verified for us and for our clients, via analysis by independent laboratories with whom we have been working with for a number of years. The methods used are based on those published by Rowland and Sutton (2017) and Rowland et al., (2018) and include use of Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (FTIR, GC-MS and NMR) techniques. The latter allow the identification and measurement of ambrein, which is the major constituent of genuine ambergris and also measurement and identification of any co-occurring compounds, such as faecal steroids".

References

Rowland, S.J. and Sutton, P.A. (2017) Chromatographic and spectral studies of jetsam and archived ambergris. Natural Product Research 31, 1752-1757 [doi: 10.1080/14786419.2017.1290618].

Rowland, S.J., Sutton, P.A., Belt, S.T., Fitzsimmons-Thoss, V. and Scarlet, A.G. (2018) Further spectral and chromatographic studies of ambergris. Natural Product Research [doi: 10.1080/14786419.2018.1428599].

Additional resources

Cameron Beccario has created a visualization of global weather conditions.

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This live visualisation collect real-time data and processes it to show as a globe of the earth. The map shows global weather conditions. Ocean surface currents and temperatures.

Visit our ambergris facebook group where you will find posts that can assist with identification.

Ambergris