Thursday, October 26, 2017
How to Identify Genuine Amber
I've been asked on a couple of occasions how to identify genuine amber beads on tribal pieces. The first question I ask is always “how much did it cost?” because genuine amber pieces, in the sizes used on tribal jewelry often run into the thousands of dollars. I hope the information given below is more helpful in making a determination!
First let's define "amber". What most of us think of as amber comes from fossilized tree resin. Amber is found on the sea floor or washed up on the beach or it is excavated in mines. “Real” amber can be from 30-95 million years old. Amber ranges in transparency from perfectly clear to almost entirely opaque and in color from white to black, including green, red, blue, yellow, brown and orange. Since it basically originated as tree sap, it may sometimes contain animal and plant material. These are known as “inclusions”. No one knows how much amber there is on earth. Some sources say there is probably much more gold on Earth than amber.
Types of Amber
Genuine Amber - This is a term that includes natural amber and pressed amber. Both are 100% amber with no additives. Heat will soften raw Amber and allow it to be molded and shaped. This process of slightly heating amber to make it malleable is common and does not change its magical properties. Hand-Carved or faceted amber is very expensive, but molded amber is more affordable and is still considered genuine. Most people consider only Baltic amber to be “genuine” but in truth, genuine amber is found around the world.
Pressed amber is made from small pieces and rejects that are melted together under high pressure. It is generally even in color. Smaller pieces of high quality pressed amber are difficult to distinguish from natural amber except that it is almost always uniform in shape. Beads and the settings in most jewelry are pressed. This is because pressing gives manufacturers uniform pieces that can be used in production and helps keep costs of the finished product to a minimum. Pressed ambers will often look different than natural amber and will be a bit more dull. Pressed amber can pass most of the tests for genuine amber.
Ambroid is a product made up of small pieces of amber embedded in plastic. The plastic is colored so that most people do not know that it is plastic. When people buy low cost jewelry often what they are getting is ambroid. It contains chips so is passed off as amber, but it is really just plastic with amber chips in it.
Copal is kind of a catch-all term used to describe beads made from young tree resin or a young amber. It can be made from the resin of any of a variety of trees. Tree resins are sometimes used to make a varnish that copal beads are treated with as a finish. It is sometimes called imitation amber and is usually easily identified.
Imitation amber is also made from plastics and colored glass. Many times bakelite and other synthetics are mistaken for amber.
Testing for Amber
There are several ways to test for amber. But there is no substitute for knowing your jewelry dealer or knowing the feel and weight of real amber. True amber never really gets cold. I've even heard you can put it in the refrigerator and it won't feel cold when you take it out! Also if you are sensitive to weights, the weight of real amber is less than other gemstones or glass.
Before choosing one of the following tests it is important to keep in mind that some of them might leave marks or mar or even ruin your amber. So if you are testing an expensive amber piece it might be a good idea to choose one of the safer tests. It is also worthwhile to pay attention to the price. If the item is priced much lower than most, this is a good indication that it may be a fake. Alternatively, before you purchase, you may want to request that the seller provide a certificate of amber authenticity.
A red hot pin poked into the object will make a piney-smelling smoke. Keep in mind that amber will also burn. Obviously this test will mar your amber piece! But it is also a pretty foolproof way to tell if it is genuine.
Look for defects
Generally speaking, natural amber will almost always have some sort of defect, ie; bubbles, dirt, crazing, or variances of color within a single piece.
Drop it in salt water.
Natural amber will float when dropped into salt water. Mix water and salt, 3 parts water to 1 part salt until dissolved. When you drop your beads in, amber will rise to the top. Glass and plastic will sink.
UV Light Test
UV light is supposed to be a very good testing method. If you shine a UV light on genuine amber, it will glow pale and fakes will not glow at all. There are some things to consider - not all ambers will glow a lot, certain colors like red often will not glow but if you move the light around the entire piece you will find a glow spot.
If you put some drops of acetone (or some type of agent like this, say nail polish remover) on the item, real amber will not be affected after the acetone evaporates, but plastic will be sticky. You can even drop muratic acid on amber and it wont hurt it. Be aware that acetone will leave spots and defects on copal and synthetics.
Amber is softer than most gemstones, it will scratch. Most hard fakes will not.
Rub and smell
You can also rub the specimen vigorously on a soft white cloth. True amber may start to smell of a resinous piney fragrance. Copal will also give a scent when rubbed, but it is not as strong as natural amber and I have heard there is a difference in the actual smell, although I do not have personal experience with this. With too much rubbing, copal will begin to soften and the surface become sticky.
You could also take the piece to an amber merchant you trust and they may be able to tell you by looking at the piece whether they believe it to be genuine amber.
I hope this helps you identify what your piece is made of without too much difficulty!
Links you might find fun or useful:
Six tests for identifying amber -
Ancient carved ambers in the Getty Museum
Colors of Amber
Palanga Amber Museum, Lithuania
This blog shows some different amber opacities and has good info