The Real Deal: How to Tell if Your Gemstones Are Genuine – Part 2 – Amber

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.

Typical amber specimen with a number of indistinct inclusions. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

Photo courtesy of amberpieces.com

Photo courtesy of amberpieces.com

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.

Sticky Situation
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!

Considering how clear the amber is, and how perfectly intact the spider specimen is, this is most likely a piece of reconstituted amber. Image found through Pinterest, no source cited.

Considering how clear the amber is, and how perfectly intact the spider specimen is, this is most likely a piece of reconstituted, or at least modified, amber. Image found through Pinterest, no source cited.

Modified Amber

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

Photo courtesy of mexicogemstones.com

Genuine red amber photo courtesy of mexicogemstones.com

~ 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)

Check out more tips & tricks in identifying beads of different materials:

Part 1 – Turquoise

Part 3 – Bone
Part 4 – Coral

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

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The Real Deal: How to Tell If Your Gemstones are Genuine – Part 1 – Turquoise

Photo courtesy of @arrowsandstone on Instagram.

Photo of natural turquoise pieces courtesy of @arrowsandstone on Instagram.

We here at Blue Door Beads are unfortunately neither gemologists nor lapidaries, but after many years of being rock hounds (and 3+ years running a bead store!) we’ve learned a thing or two about gemstones and beads made of other precious, natural materials and how to tell which ones are the real deal.

Writing about every bead and/or gemstone in the world would take forever, so we decided to dedicate our next few blog posts to the top beads we carry whose authenticity is most frequently questioned: turquoise, amber, coral, and ivory.

Through numerous experiences, both good and bad, we have found that there are certain attributes to look for in a bead if you want to know if the vendor you’re buying from is trying to pull a fast one on you. 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. Of course, the worst-case scenario is that the bead has been completely mislabeled — nobody wants to pay top dollar for a faux stone! So, without further ado, here are some crucial facts to squirrel away for future reference about one stone in particular:

This large Kingman mine cabochon from Durango Silver is worth over $200.

This large cabochon from the Kingman mine is worth over $200. (Photo courtesy of Durango Silver Company.)

Turquoise

There are many, MANY different turquoise mines throughout the world, several of which closed decades ago, making certain turquoise specimens very rare and extremely sought-after. (Source 1) Kingman turquoise, for example, is a type that is only found in the Kingman mine of northwestern Arizona. Kingman turquoise’s bright blue color with fine, black matrix is highly coveted by collectors. Another example of “exclusive” turquoise is Sleeping Beauty, a type only found in The Sleeping Beauty mine near Globe, Arizona. This type of turquoise is noted for its solid, light blue color with little or no matrix. The heyday of both the Kingman mine and Sleeping Beauty mine was in the 1960’s, and within a decade, the turquoise in the mines had been depleted, forcing them to close in the 1970’s.

This fairly small Sleeping Beauty turquoise cabochon is still worth over $50 because of it's highly desirable light blue color with very few imperfections. Photo courtesy of ChamisaGems on Etsy.

This fairly small natural Sleeping Beauty turquoise cabochon is worth over $50 because of it’s highly desirable light blue color with very few imperfections. Photo courtesy of ChamisaGems on Etsy.

Both Kingman and Sleeping Beauty specimens are examples of some of the most expensive in the jewelry industry, and tiny-to-small pieces are the only types that haven’t been stabilized. The term “stabilizing” refers to a process which “involves impregnating the material with a clear epoxy resin, which effectively is absorbed by the turquoise and fills the pores in the chalky material, much like silica does, thus hardening the stone.” (Source 2) Overall in the world of gemstones, you would be hard pressed to find a piece of any turquoise that has not been stabilized since it “has been estimated that less than 3% of the world’s supply of turquoise can be used in its purely natural state for jewelry, as most is soft and crumbly.” (Source 2)

Purists search high and low for natural turquoise, and although it would be wonderful to find non-stabilized turquoise, the culprit to really look out for is reconstituted turquoise. This is a process that involves “grinding pieces of turquoise to a powder and binding it all together with glue or resin.” (Source 2) Though technically made from turquoise particles, we consider it stretching the truth a little too much to call this type of turquoise “natural.”

Magnesite is frequently dyed to imitate many different types of turquoise. The giveaway that it's not the real deal: magnesite is MUCH less expensive than real turquoise. Photo courtesy of Rings & Things.

Magnesite is frequently dyed to imitate many different types of turquoise. One giveaway that it’s not the real deal: magnesite is MUCH less expensive than real turquoise. Photo courtesy of Rings & Things.

However, there are other stones that exist that are 100% synthetic turquoise, but are sometimes sold as the real deal: howlite and magnesite. Although they are real stones, they don’t have a single molecule of genuine turquoise in them. Both respond really well to dye, and both have interesting crevices and matrix patterns (magnesite more so than howlite), so they can make excellent imitations. We don’t feel there is anything wrong with imitation turquoise, as long as both the vendor and the consumer know that it’s imitation. The only way to truly find out if the stone you have is genuine or imitation is to crack one open: if it is super veiny on the outside, and white with a chalky consistency on the inside, chances are it’s dyed magnesite. If it’s less veiny on the outside, and white —  but with a denser consistency — on the inside, the stone is probably dyed howlite. Like the folks at Rings & Things say, vendors “make mistakes, but when we discover we’ve used the wrong description or name we quickly change to the correct one and admit our error.” (Source 3) Certain beads may sometimes slip through the cracks, but 9 times out of 10, we’re confident we’re identifying our turquoise — or our non-turquoise — correctly.

Check out more tips & tricks in identifying beads of different materials:

Part 2 – Amber

Part 3 – Bone
Part 4 – Coral

Source 1: AG Designs
Source 2: Blue Turtles Turquoise Facts
Source 3: Rings & Things Blog (includes tons of even more helpful tips)
Other helpful source: Durango Silver Company (includes a list of different grades of turquoise)