Amber is said to be a powerful yet gentle healing stone, as well as a cleansing one. For millennia, artists and jewelry-makers have revered it for its beauty. It comes in many colors, and can be found in numerous places throughout the world. You probably know all of this already, but the real question is: how do you know if it’s the real deal?
As we said in our previous post about turquoise, specific factors make certain beads highly desirable, including their rarity and how un-modified they are; the less they’ve been messed with, the better. Like turquoise, amber is very often stabilized, reconstituted, or flat-out imitated with other materials. Today we’ll be covering facts about amber, including how it is commonly manipulated, as well as how you can test to see if your cherished piece of jewelry contains genuine amber.
First, let’s address a common myth about amber — it is NOT fossilized tree sap, it is actually fossilized resin. What differentiates resin from sap (here’s the short version) is the fact that resin contains strong-smelling terpenes, which “protect the plants that produce them by deterring herbivores and by attracting predators and parasites of herbivores.” (Source 1) The resin produced by most plants is a viscous liquid, composed mainly of these terpenes, with “lesser components of dissolved non-volatile solids, which make resin thick and sticky.”(Source 2) To put it simply: sap is the fluid that circulates through a plant’s vascular system, transporting nutrients throughout a plant on the inside, while resin acts as a safeguard on the outside. (If you really want to brush up on your sap facts, click here.)
A close cousin of amber is the material known as copal. More generally, the term copal describes resinous substances in an intermediate stage of hardening between “gummier” resins and amber.The word copal is derived from the Nahuatl language word copalli, meaning ‘incense'” — and to this day, many cultures do burn copal as a form of incense. (Source 3) Another naturally-occurring amber cousin is kauri gum.
So now you know what amber is, from a scientific perspective. But how does one go about distinguishing the real deal from the fake stuff? According to several websites we found, there are multiple tests you can try.
PLEASE NOTE: If you are truly concerned about your cherished amber heirloom, go to a professional lapidary or gemologist to have your piece appraised. Most fine jewelers should have reputable sources they can refer you to, if not someone right there on-site. All of the tests listed here are strictly experiments, and although some of these tests did give us what we believe to be reliable results, we did them just for fun — we can’t promise you anything.
Does It Float?
According to ambergallery.com, you can test your amber piece by seeing if it will float in salt water. This should obviously be done with something that is just amber (beads or cabochons, for example), not a finished piece of jewelry that contains amber, since the metal element will weigh the amber down. Simply “mix about 1 part salt to 2 parts warm water and dissolve the salt completely. Drop your piece into the mixture.” Plastic will drop to the bottom, while a genuine amber piece will float. Unfortunately, copal can also float, so you may have to conduct another one of the tests we’ve listed to make absolutely sure of your amber’s authenticity.
Glow With It
Supposedly, if you take genuine amber into a dark environment and shine a UV light on it, the amber will glow pale blue. Some amber pieces may not glow very much (red, for example), but phony amber won’t glow at all. If you rotate the piece, you should find at least one spot that will glow, so if you don’t see any part of the piece that’s glowing, then it’s not the real amber. (Source 5)
Singe & Sniff
First, find an inconspicuous area of your amber piece that you wish to test (the underside of a cabochon, the back of a necklace, etc.) Next, carefully heat a needle or the stick of a safety pin. While still hot, try to push the needle or pin into the amber. If it doesn’t slide in easily and it results in a very subtle pine-y aroma, your piece is most likely amber. If the metal DOES slide in easily and you detect a STRONG pine smell, it’s probably copal. If the resulting smell seems chemical-like, your piece could be synthetic resin, Bakelilte, French Bakelite, lucite, or some other plastic — but definitely not amber.
Grab some acetone-based nail polish remover and a Q-tip. Coat the Q-tip in the nail polish remover, then choose a hidden spot on your amber. Gently dab the Q-tip onto the spot. Does the surface still appear to be just as smooth and shiny as before? Congratulations, you have a real amber specimen! Did the spot become sticky/tacky to the touch, and/or can you leave a subtle fingerprint on the surface? If so, you probably have a piece of copal (at best) or a piece of synthetic resin or flat-out plastic (at worst). (Source 5)
The Taste Test
We found this test to be the most unconventional — and probably the test we’d be least likely to conduct. Carefully wash the piece of amber with soap and water, then rinse again with just water. Once dry, “lick the specimen slowly several times, allowing the subtle taste to linger. It should be extremely subtle – real amber has almost no taste at all, leaving at most a very slight, tingly sensation.” It has been said that this “taste” may actually be just a touch sensation, not a true response of the taste buds. Most plastic or other polymer imitations supposedly possess a distinctly nasty taste that screams “imitation!” We’re not sure how likely we are to go around licking our amber beads here in the shop, but if you’d like to conduct a taste test on items in your personal collection, feel free!
Let’s say you have now discovered, after conducting a test or two, that what you own IS amber. Unfortunately, that does not mean that the amber you have is 100% natural. Reconstituted amber (a.k.a. “ambroid”, “processed”, “pressed” or “reconstructed amber”) consists of little bits of amber that were considered sub-par by the distributor; they were taken, put in a mold, and squished together with linseed oil using ultra-high pressure and heat.
Sometimes amber is not reconstitutued, but has had a heat treatment applied to it in the hopes of altering or improving color, enhancing transparency, or producing inclusions with special effects. If you’d like to find out more about the process of heat-treating amber, check out the Gemological Institute of America’s article on the topic.
A few questions you can ask when looking at your amber piece to find out if it’s been modified:
1.) Is the amber perfectly uniform in color?
2.) Does it have oddly symmetrical little inclusions floating inside?
3.) Does is have a piece of flora or fauna trapped inside it, yet is still priced at less than your life savings?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, chances are the amber has been treated with heat, or reconstituted (another industry buzzword is “reconstructed,” but when referring to amber, it means the same thing.) Like we said with turquoise, that doesn’t technically mean it’s not “real amber”, but it has been modified and should not be sold to you as “natural amber.” If it seems like you’re getting a helluva deal, be warned — you’re probably not. (Source 6)
Other Fun Facts About Amber
~ Common colors of amber: red (sometimes known as “cherry amber”), dark golden color (one of the most common), yellow (also very common), green (typically copal), and blue (extremely rare). “Black amber” is not actually amber — it is jet. For a somewhat lengthy explanation, click here.
~ If amber is less than 10,000 years old, it is technically copal (frequently from Madagascar or Columbia). Amber from the Baltics and the Dominican Republic can be anywhere from 25 million to 40 million years old. (Source 4)
~ Most amber that is found in coastal regions is collected by hand, dredging, or diving. However, Mexican amber is mined from inside mountains, encased in limestone. Mining amber in these types of locations is a difficult process, so the amber specimens gathered in this manner fetch a premium price. (Source 7)
~ Dominican amber differentiates itself from Baltic amber by being nearly always transparent, and it has a higher number of fossil inclusions. (Source 7)
Source 1: definition of terpene on Wikipedia
Source 2: definition of resin on Wikipedia
Source 3: definition of copal on Wikipedia
Source 4: healingcrystals.com
Source 5: Testing Amber and Spotting Fakes
Source 6: Reconstituted Amber
Source 7: definition of amber on Wikipedia
For more about blue amber, check out www.blueamber.info