This is a home guide for distinguishing real amber from fake amber. We welcome your comments!
The warm glow and smooth feel of natural amber has captivated humanity for thousands of years. This unique gem falls within the class of jewelry materials known as “organics” because it originates from the living world. Like Coral, Pearls, Jet, Ebony and Ivory, it is the byproduct of a living thing and served a unique purpose in the ecosystem long before it was recognized for its aesthetic value by human beings.
Amber is a prized material for jewelry and other accessories. Unfortunately, there are dozens of tricky substitutes for amber that are often mistaken for the real thing. The purpose of this article is to help the casual observer distinguish between fakes and real amber.
Before delving into the specifics, it is important to have an understanding of the nature and origin of natural amber. All amber began as resin oozing from the exterior of an ancient (at least 2 Million years ago) tree (unlike sugar bearing sap, resin originates from the exterior of tree and serves a variety of protective purposes). You can see modern tree resin on most pine trees at points wear a lost limb or other injury caused the tree to exude resin.
The resin from these ancient trees was transported by nature into lakes, swamps and marine environments where it underwent a polymerization process known as “amberization”. The chemical make-up of the resin was actually changed during this process and gives amber the unique qualities that make it suitable for use in jewelry. Amberization, under most conditions, requires at least 2 Million years. If the Amberization process is interrupted before sufficient time has passed, the result is a not fully polymerized material known as Copal.
With that introduction to amber in mind, we can proceed to field observations and analysis that will help distinguish between amber and its substitutes.
There are 4 general things that can be mistaken for Amber: 1) modern plastics / resins; 2) vintage plastics and pre-plastics; 3) glass and silicon based minerals (e.g. Carnelian); and 4) other tree resins. Through basic observation and some limited home-testing, you can confidently distinguish amber from these substitutes. With time and practice, testing becomes less necessary.
STEP ONE: Look at it
Amber ranges in transparency from perfectly clear to almost entirely opaque and in color from white to black. Common colors on the transparent side include light yellow, dark yellow, orangish yellow, red, reddish brown and milky. Review the images below of different shades of Amber in jewelry.
The warm golden-yellow color of these natural amber beads is probably the most commonly encountered color for transparent amber. The small inclusions and irregularities are a tell-tale sign that you are likely looking at real amber.
The two rings below feature darker, but still transparent/translucent amber. The dark natural grennish-brown specimen is set in an antique Russian ring. The reddish-brown example is set in a vintage American ring.
Common colors on the opaque side include white, egg yolk, red, butter scotch, brown and near-black. Below are some examples of opaque / barely translucent amber set in jewelry.
Much less common natural colors include anything in the blue-green spectrum. It is common however, to see yellow amber that that has been enhanced to give it a green or blue color. The earrings below have a lovely green color. They are natural amber earrings, but their true color is yellow. If you examine the photo of the back of the earrings you will note a black plastic coating. This coating is used to give these earrings their green color.
STEP TWO. Feel It
Amber is very lightweight and warm to the touch. These characteristics make it fairly easy to distinguish from glassy materials that sometimes masquerade as Amber including glass, carnelian and certain agates. If the weight and coolness-to-touch of these glassy materials doesn’t quickly distinguish them, a light tap to your front tooth will do the trick. Glass and stones have an unmistakable hard rattle against a tooth whereas amber has just a very light plastic tap. Below are photos of two materials sometimes mistaken for amber.
STEP THREE: Heat It and Smell It
We are proponents of heat testing amber. Some collectors and jewelers view this method of testing as too destructive to be beneficial. We, however, believe that it is one of the most reliable home-methods to distinguish amber from modern and early plastics and that it can be performed in a manner that avoids destroying the test subject.
When heated, amber produces a sooty, but pleasant, slightly sweet, pine-tree smell. We do not recommend this method for distinguishing amber from copal because copal also produces a natural resinous smell when heated — it smells different than amber (sweeter and more like frankencense), but you need some experience to tell the difference.
In order to heat the amber safely, without destroying it, we recommend using two very thin strands of copper wire twisted together into a “probe”. These wires can be harvested from the cord of an old cell phone charger or pretty much any other adapter cord. The wires should be a little thicker than a human hair. You will want to hold the wires with a pair of pliers (or create a small wooden handle for your probe). This is because copper is a very good conductor of heat and it will burn your hand if you just hold the probe. As an alternative to the probe, you can use a very thin sewing needle.
The concept is simple. You want to heat the probe until its glowing red and then quickly touch it to an inconspicuous spot on the test subject. We find the best spots to be:
- the hole on a bead
- for open set pieces, the back of the piece where it meets the bezel
- for closed set pieces (e.g. the small tear drop shaped butterscotch amber studs above) the very edge where the amber meets the bezel. In this instance, it is important to perform the test on a downward angle so that you are effectively testing between the amber and the bezel at the seam where they meet.
Before attempting the test, you should prepare a work surface. A towel placed on a counter will work well. You should observe regular lab safety protocol.
First identify the test location. You will only have a second or two from when the probe is heated until you touch it to the test subject so you need to have your heat source ready and nearby. Heat the probe until it is glowing red and then immediately touch it to the test subject. You do not want to drive it into piece — rather you want to just gently touch it to the piece.
Natural amber will often release a TINY puff of smoke. More importantly, it will release a fragrant smell that has a natural pinewood-like scent. Man-made materials will respond very differently. There will be either no smell (Bakelite and similar substances) or a foul petro chemical smell.
STEP FOUR: Distinguish Amber from Copal
As discussed above, copal is tree resin that is too young to be amber. It is, in our opinion, the most difficult substance to distinguish from true amber. Before delving into this subject, it is important to consider that many people do not care if their jewelry is made from Amber or Copal. Visually, they are almost indistinguishable. Copal is cheaper and often has spectacular plant and insect inclusions. It is 100% natural and usually tens of thousands of years old. It is not as durable as amber, but makes a wonderful substitute for the cost conscious consumer.
We advocate three types of testing for copal: UV Light; Acetone; and Friction.
The Friction test is simple. Rub the piece briskly back and forth across a piece of dry cloth. Copal will usually become SLIGHTLY tacky to the touch as a result of the heat created during the rubbing process. Amber will remain smooth and in dry conditions will become slightly electrostatic (you can test this by trying to attract thin paper confetti).
The UV Test is simple, but requires that you to own or have access to a short wave UV lamp. Most species of amber of fluoresce a light shade of blue or green under UV light. Copal, unless strangely included, will not fluoresce. In a dark room (wear appropriate eye protection) expose the sample to UV Light and observe whether it fluoresces.
The acetone test is best reserved for raw specimens. It often leaves discoloration on the surface of the sample which will then need to be polished out. Acetone is a strong solvent which will dissolve copal, but not amber. It can be purchased at any beauty supply store. In a pinch, you can use an acetone based nail polish remover. Simple apply a drop of acetone to the surface of the test subject and then let it evaporate. Copal will usually become slightly tacky. Amber will have no response. If you are suspicious of your results, apply another drop in the same location and repeat the test. Some copal requires two applications to begin to dissolve. Importantly, some amber, especially collector’s specimens, is treated with a protective coating – if you suspect this is the case with your piece, do not apply the acetone and will almost certainly dissolve the coating.
NOTE ON OTHER TESTING METHODS
There are a bevy of additional tests that can be performed to distinguish amber from other substances. We mention some of them here for the purposes of completeness. However, we find them to be unhelpful because they either require special equipment or would not work for amber set in jewelry.
- Hardness testing. Amber is very soft and most species fall at a 2 on the Moh’s hardness scale. With a hardness kit, you can distinguish amber from harder substitutes. However, many man-mad plastics have a similar softness and thus this test, alone, is not especially reliable.
- Specific Gravity. Specific Gravity testing is extremely accurate. However, it requires the amber specimen to be removed from whatever jewelry it is set in. Therefore we do not find this type of testing to be particularly useful.
- Refractive Index. This test can be accurate, but requires a refractometer. Most of the amber we’ve encountered hits between a 1.53 and 1.55.
- “Tasting”. Our mother swears she can taste the difference between amber and plastic. We’re not sure on this one!