How to tell Real Amber vs Fake Amber Jewelry and Everything In Between

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 Earrings Top
Vintage Sterling Silver & Amber Earrings from our ebay store

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.

Read more How to tell Real Amber vs Fake Amber Jewelry and Everything In Between

New Jersey Amber Jewelry

Tiny oblong pebble of reddish Amber

Tiny Oblong Reddish New Jersey Amber Pebble Currently for Sale in our eBay Store

      As you might expect, we come across a lot of amber jewelry in our travels. Frequent trips to the Dominican Republic and the Mexican Yucatan over the last several years have allowed us to accumulate an impressive collection of raw amber specimens and amber jewelry.   Interestingly, last year we learned that some of the most paleontolgically valuable amber specimens in the world come from a New Jersey town called Sayreville. (It is still possible to collect specimens in this semi-coastal town with appropriate permission from local landowners.)

The New Jersey Amber is true Amber, not Copal, and dates from the late middle Cretaceous Period (roughly 90 million years old). [1] We were fortunate enough to visit last year with a local collector who goes by the name “Hopper”.  Hopper explained that the most of the amber he collects comes from the surface of a large clay pit in the center of the town. A combination of frequent excavations, prior mining activity, and natural forces have resulted in a scattering of mostly pea sized amber pebbles across a flat surface.

Hopper provided us with several samples of the Amber he’s collected along with a string of beads that he polished and drilled from the tiny amber pebbles. The amber comes in a variety of colors from clear a yellowish honey amber to a dark brown nearly opaque amber with heavy inclusions. Some of the prettiest pieces are a gentle reddish yellow. All of the amber pebbles have an oxidation crust on the outside that prevents their real beauty from coming through. It can be easily polished off or the pebble can be placed in water. The water temporarily hydrates the oxidized crust and creates the illusion of polish.

When we got back to our workshop, we began brainstorming as to how to incorporate the unique amber pebbles into wearable jewelry. The amber presents two limiting issues:

            1. The pieces are small in size;

            2. The amber is more brittle than other amber we’ve encountered.

Enlarged Image of the New Jersey Amber Pebbles – Note the color and opacity variance – they are under water to enhance their color and clarity
Enlarged Image of the New Jersey Amber Pebbles – Note the color and opacity variance – they are under water to enhance their color and clarity

So far, the leading ideas are: 1) to use them like branch pearls in a sculptural brooch or pendant (possible an Egyptian style bird); 2) to partially submerge them in acrylic over engine-turned sterling silver plank and then cut the plank into triangular earring faces; 3) to simply drill them as is and hang them from 14K gold wire as hook earrings. We would greatly appreciate any other ideas or design suggestions.

  

 


[1] Grimaldi & Agosti, A Formicine in New Jersey Cretaceous Amber, PNAS December 5, 2000

vol. 97 no. 25 (This is a peer reviewed paper that discusses a “worker ant” found by the author in a Sayreville Amber specimen. The intended audience is scientifically oriented people. It’s not impossible to get through for the lay person, but not an easy read either).