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.

Pin Test
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.

Acetone Test
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.

Scratch Test
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

Amber Gemstones

Colors of Amber

Palanga Amber Museum, Lithuania

This blog shows some different amber opacities and has good info

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Cowrie Jewelry in India

Not long ago, a Red Camel Facebook page fan asked about the use of cowries in Indian jewelry. This is a great question, and one that I was not overly familiar with. Almost all my research into Indian jewelry has been focused on silver, and it seems that all the research books I have do so as well. It was a bit of a challenge to find anything on this subject! But dig I did, and the results are below.

Cowries as a Form of Currency

Cowries are found in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, the Laccadives and around Zanzibar. They washed up in quantity on the shore and were gathered, and at times were cultivated by the local peoples. Cowries have been used as currency on every continent except Antarctica! Cowries became convenient form of currency because they were small, portable, long-lasting and hard-wearing, mostly uniform in size/shape and were hard to counterfeit. Traders from near the Indian Ocean spread cowries across the ancient world, from China to Eastern Europe. Cowries were used not only as currency, but as personal decoration in India, Africa, the Middle East and all across Asia and Oceana. Cowries were worn in ancient Egypt and have been found in Siberian graves as well as cro-magnon graves in Eastern Europe.

Besides being a small and portable form of money, the cowrie symbolized women in many cultures. The shape of the shells is thought by many to resemble female genitalia and so encompasses the concepts of female sexuality and human fertility. The cowrie is also hermaphroditic which makes it appear to magically self-multiply, contributing to it's use as a fertility symbol. It recalls the basic sexuality of human kind and epitomizes the potency of sex, transcending boundaries of culture, religion and decency. In some cultures, it is also thought of as bearing a resemblance to the human eye, so like the eye bead and mirror, it repels the evil eye and wards off demons. Because of it's almost indestructible nature and it's glossy white surface, the cowrie also came to symbolize immortality.

Because of its associations with sexuality, fertility, wealth, immortality and protection, the cowrie shell is one of the most common and powerful amulets to be found. It is used everywhere and decorates everything from amulets, pendants, jewelry, clothing, household items, musical instruments and animals.

As currency, it has been one of the longest and most widely used forms. Cowries were in use in China as early as 2,000 BC and were used up until 1940 in some areas of Africa. In some eastern parts of India (Bengal and Orissa), they were used up until the 19th century as a form of low value currency.

In India, the use of cowries for exchange gradually diminished with the wider use of metal currency issued by the British. The shells then plummeted in value and were impractical for use as currency. Cowries had always been used for other purposes, but their monetary connotation and ready availability lead to their decorative use as a symbolic display of wealth on the human body, animals or on utilitarian objects.

Cowrie Tassels on Banjara Armlets

Cowries as Personal Adornment in India

There is little written about the use of cowries in Indian personal and tribal adornment in reference works other than in general terms. They are sometimes mentioned as a natural form of adornment and sometimes there is discussion of their powers of protection. Much more, however, is written about the powers and necessity of bodily adornment itself, usually (but not always) framed in terms of precious metal jewelry. In fact, many reference works skip over jewelry composed of other materials completely and concentrate exclusively on that of precious metals. One can hardly blame them. The quantity and variety of gold and silver from India is almost unbelievable.

Indian jewelry and adornment can indicate religion, geographic origin, social and economic status, wealth and marital status. Dowries, both of Hindu and Muslim women,were usually made up of traditional silver or gold and provided by the bride's family. As basic background, until relatively recently Indian women could own only their jewelry as property. Most of her jewelry was provided at marriage and a specific amount, in weight, was proscribed by a written marriage contract. It was her sole material security. All other material wealth was owned by men.

In general the oldest tribal amulets are those found in nature, such as teeth, fur, bones, horns, feathers, shells, seeds, etc. As one of nature's oldest and most treasured amulets, cowries have found their way from coastal areas into the most remote parts of India. These old talismans have been used for over 2,000 years and are still in use by tribal and rural peoples today, especially in the “tribal belt” of India – from the Arabian Sea in the west running through central India to the Bay of Bengal in the east.

All traditional tribal jewelry acts not only to make its wearer beautiful, but also as protection from spirits, the evil eye and misfortune. Bodily adornment provides the most powerfully expressive elements of Indian tribal art, followed closely by domestic adornment. For thousands of years, cowries represented human sexuality, fertility, an eye or female genitalia. Cowries can be attached to almost anything and with the open cleft side visible can be made into attractive, decorative and repetitive patterns. From ancient times cowries were used as animal decoration as well as human, and the custom of adorning valued animals symbolizes human dependence on their stock and the value placed upon cattle, horses and camels. It is little wonder then that the cowrie became a ubiquitous element in tribal art forms.

Naga Warrior

Tribal Groups Using Cowries for Adornment

There are many different Indian tribal peoples that use the cowrie in their jewelry, clothing and everyday items. “Adivasi” is a general name that covers the original small, autonomous groups of rural tribal people found across modern day India who do not necessarily belong to any Hindu, Muslim or Christian religion. All use cowries as elements in personal and household adornment. Generally Adavasi women are equal in rights to men and can choose their own spouse. They do not bring dowries to a marriage.

Banjara tribal people (also known as the Lambada or Lambani) were originally nomads but are now more settled and have become road builders. The women wear magnificently embroidered clothing and heavy silver jewelry, even when doing manual labor. They add cowries to the edges of blouses and hems of skirts as well as incorporating them into tassels and jewelry. The Romany people are said to have come from Banjara forebears. To the Banjara, cowries represent Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. The Banjara women are holding tightly to their ancient modes of dress, which are said to be the most colorful and elaborate of any tribe in India. Much of the modern tribal belly dance costuming tradition originated with Banjara jewelry and textiles.

The Rabari are another well-known tribal group that use cowries in personal adornment. They are camel/livestock breeders, and some still travel the ancient routes between winter and summer areas. Most are now living a more settled life in Gujarat, the Punjab and Rajasthan. The Rabari have their own unique artists' traditions, including fabric stamping, embroidery and applique work. The women pursue embroidery, beadwork and other crafts, and make clothing and household items. Rabari men make animal trappings and bags. These include halters, girths and elaborate neck decorations, called gorbandh, that are decorated with buttons, tassels, mirrors, pendants and cowries. These are made and decorated to beautify and protect their most valuable possessions – their camels! Gorbandh are elaborate, and emcompass halter, bridle and “necklace” all in one, often reaching from the camel's head to it's knees. The Rabari are one of the most photographed tribal groups because of their striking dress and jewelry and their more accessible geographic locations.

One other Indian tribal group I will mention here is the Naga. Originally headhunters from ancient times, the Naga live in the most easterly part of India, on the other side of Bangladesh, in an area appropriately called Nagaland. Ancient Naga culture survived almost intact into the mid-twentieth century, including the practice of headhunting. They were fundamentally self-sufficient in essential needs, and were one of the last groups to be in contact with the British. Their spiritual beliefs tended toward animism, and they practice a primitive and superstition-based religion. There is no evidence of influence by the Hindu or any other outside religion. Most materials for their personal adornment come from local, natural, accessible sources. In this group, cowries are oddly used to denote men of warrior status. Cowrie wristlets represent the drawing of blood. In various configurations, cowries are used on men's loincloths and various personal items. They are not generally associated with women in this culture. For the Naga, cowries are a display of wealth and status.

Obviously the cowrie has a long and rich history in India and across the world. It's staying power is evidenced by the fact that it is still used today to adorn, decorate and beautify it's wearer, whether human or animal. As a renewable resource it is one of the most ecological adornments in use. It has played a large role in and made a great contribution to India's history, both as a currency and decorative element. For tribal people, the use of cowries is such an old tradition that often the original meanings and purposes have often been forgotten and can't easily be explained by their wearers!

Banjara Women in Tribal Finery



Shells as Money

The Adivasi

The Rabari

Naga Culture


Amulets – Sacred Charms of Power and protection by Sheila Paine

Naga Tribal Adornment by Shilu Ao

Tribal Asia-Ceremonies, Ritual and Dress by Robert Schmid and Fritz Trupp

The Splendor of Ethnic Jewelry by France Borel

Ethnic Jewellery-From Africa, Asia & pacific Islands by Oppi Untracht

Traditional Jewelry of India by Oppi Untracht