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.