Have you ever wondered how to distinguish natural amber from counterfeiting? You all know the main modern business law – If there is demand, then it must be satisfied. Do you want an amber necklace made of a beautiful yellow stone? You are welcome! Can’t afford a necklace? They will provide you with a cheaper variant – just buy it!
As it is with the world, humans always find new ways to copy nature. During the early 18th century a group of scientists found a way to synthesize amber. Natural materials were used to make amber copies and slowly moved into the market. These pieces were used as jewelry and, naturally, their price was high.
Nowadays fake Baltic amber has flooded the market, and most people do not even realize it. People intend to purchase these amber pieces and consider them a genuine because they cannot tell the difference. Sadly, many of these people are exploited as merchants who sell fake amber usually do so at a high price.
Of course, any ordinary person can be deceived and may not be able to tell the difference. However, a person with a good understanding of the healing powers of the stone, as well as its texture and quality, can differentiate fake amber from real amber.
As a shop that sells only 100% natural certified amber, Nammu has a vast experience in how to detect real amber from fake and this is what we want you to know. Let us share our experience. Before we start, there is one obvious recommendation we can make.
To make things easier, we recommend that you purchase a genuine piece of Baltic amber from a trustworthy source. This will drastically reduce the probability of purchasing fake amber when you are in the market for authentic amber pieces.
The realities of the amber market are such that anyone who wants to buy jewelry from a precious petrified gum can afford it – regardless of the level of material prosperity. However, when you are at a sales counter, remember: the cheaper amber and jewelry made from it, the more likely to buy a fake. Especially if the trade goes somewhere in the underground passage.
Artificial amber can be produced from bakelite, casein, polyester and epoxy resins, mixed in different proportions. Other materials that are used, can even have nothing to do with amber. So, what can we do in this situation? How to distinguish true amber from a fake?
Knowing some tips and tricks, you can easily determine the authenticity of amber. The main assistant in this case is the “culprit of the investigation” itself – amber with its original and unique physical and chemical properties.
Here are a few methods that will help you distinguish a true gem from its imitation. Each of these methods is based on the specifics of the properties of amber. If you want to know more about them, check our What Is Amber post.
In this post you will find
Method 1 – Visual Amber Test
One of the first things you can do when testing Amber and jewelry made from it is to test it visually. Real Amber beads tend to be unique in their appearance so you should look for imperfections when inspecting them.
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.
However, the warm golden-yellow color of amber 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.
Common colors on the opaque side include white, egg yolk, red, butter scotch, brown and near-black.
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. Pieces may be natural transparent yellow, but the back of the piece will have a black plastic coating. This coating is used to give these pieces their green color.
Some common imperfections are tiny cracks or small air bubbles. Also beads should vary a little in size and its shape shouldn’t be always round. When you touch amber it tends to be a little warm, which is not the case with most other fakes.
Often counterfeits have a noticeable multiple inclusions of air bubbles easily visible to the naked eye.
Well-stocked so-called “glitters” in the thickness of the stone (other than round bubbles) can speak of both fake (bernite material) and natural calcined amber.
Uniform – without color transitions and without any textures – color of amber beads should alert the buyer. Some imitators, however, make fakes that have characteristic amber texture! Bakelite beads, for example, have a clearly directed laminated pattern, most often oriented along the thread hole.
Natural amber, especially one that did not undergo ennobling by heat treatment, looks richer than a counterfeit one. The natural stone has an interesting color with chaotic transitions of shades one into another. Its array is always endowed with a unique pattern typical to natural amber.
Method 2 – The Weight Test
Amber is a gem of organic origin. Its density is low. Large beads of natural amber (total weight of 70 – 80 grams) look very impressive. Counterfeits of plastic and glass, having a high density, are modest in size – but weigh a lot.
To the touch, amber is warm, since it has a weak thermal conductivity – unlike glass, in which the thermal conductivity is much higher.
As we said,genuine amber is lightweight and slightly warm to the touch. This is due to it being underground for millions of years and because of its chemical composition. You can distinguish fake amber that is made of glass from the real thing because glass is harder, cooler, and heavier than authentic amber.
Method 3 – Hardness Test
Another important and easy way to check your amber piece is by checking its hardness. By conducting this test, you can immediately determine whether the amber piece is real or not. Genuine amber is relatively soft. Most fakes are either hard solids or have that plastic feel to them. With small beads, all you have to do is press them between your thumb and index finger.Genuine #amber is relatively soft. Cannot be scratched with the fingernail. #DetectRealAmberCLICK TO TWEET
The density of amber on the Mohs scale is 2.0 – 2.5. This means that it can not be scratched with a fingernail. But copal – similar to amber resin beans – on the contrary, is easily damaged by the same nail. Its hardness is only 1.5 units by Mohs. Glass and plastic are noticeably harder than amber: this difference is felt even by fingers.
Method 4 – Scratch Test
Scratch test is usually preferred when not expensive amber is being tested. This is mainly because scratching on this gemstone can potentially damage it. Doing this test can help to separate colored glass from amber. This test is useful because glass beads can’t be scratched while using metal and real amber is soft enough so its beads can be scratched on. So basically if you can scratch on your jewelry bead it is most likely amber and if you are not able to do this then its probably a fake.
How to perform a test? With the point of the knife, needle or razor scratch amber in an inconspicuous place. The real amber will crumble with small pieces that can be grinded into powder. The plastic will leave elastic shavings. Glass will not be scratched.
Method 5 – Salty Water Test
This test is extremely easy and effective. Natural amber in most cases floats in salty water and sinks in fresh water. This is how in some places, for example the Baltic Coast, you can find it washed up on the shore after stormy weather.
The density of amber, according to various sources – 1.05 – 1.09, maximum 1.3 g / cm³. The maximum density of salty water is 1.1972. Theoretically, it turns out that some samples of amber may still be denser than brine (high-concentration solution of usualy 5% of salt in water). In that case, they will drown. If there is a suspicion that the test sample is not natural, it is worthwhile to test it in other ways.
The main drawback of this method is that it is not very suitable for testing jewelry that has some metal or other components in it; however it works well for loose beads.
How to prepare a solution? Dilute 8-10 teaspoons of salt in a glass of water. If you need more water, make a supersaturated solution (with undissolved salt crystals on the bottom of the vessel). In the next step add your amber gemstone into this water. Real amber should float in this water easily while majority of fakes will sink fast.
This test will reveal glass, bakelite, celluloid, imitations from epoxy resins and bernite. But it does not help you to identify the copal and the pressed amber.
After the experiment, the amber must be rinsed with fresh water and dried.
Method 6 – Electrostatic charging
Since real amber has electrostatic properties it can pick up tiny paper pieces or dust when it is charged sufficiently. If natural amber is intensively rubbed against wool or silk, it becomes negatively charged. So in order to charge amber you need to wrap it in a cloth and then rub it for some time (20-60 seconds).
In the next step hold this gemstone near a strand of hair. If your hair is attracted towards this stone it means that static was produced and most likely you are holding real amber. Alternatively if this gemstone didn’t became charged but rather sticky it means that it is Copal.
Moreover, following property can be verified by attaching electrified amber to small pieces of paper. They must rush to the surface of amber or stick.
Some types of plastics have this property. But it is more pronounced in amber. The electrostatic method makes it possible to identify forgery, in which the properties of electrification are completely absent. Kopal (it is sold under the guise of “young” or “immature” amber) does not electrify when rubbing.
Method 7 – Heating Test
Heating test is one of the easiest methods. When you rub real amber on the palm of your hand, it is said to give off its iconic smell. This occurs due to the heating effect produced by friction between your hand and the amber piece. If you employ this method and there is no pine-tree scent, then your amber piece is most likely not authentic.
This test might be a bit too difficult for individuals who are not very familiar with this natural resin. This is mainly because you need to know how the difference between smell of Copal and Baltic Amber. Scent of true Baltic Amber tends to be stronger than compared with Copal. And in case you are dealing with other type of fake you should feel plastic smell once a bead is heated.
Vigorous friction of amber on the fabric or palm to a significant increase in the temperature of the stone helps to feel a weak resinous aroma, reminiscent of the smell of pine or turpentine. If you do the same with a copal, it will soften, and its surface will become sticky. Any synthetics will give out a sharp chemical smell.
If you apply a hot tip of the needle to the amber surface, a white smoke with a characteristic resin odor will appear. The aroma of resin is strong enough to understand whether it is the plastic in your hands or real amber. However, different amber differs in shades of smell. All varieties of amber combine a pleasant, slightly sourish resinous aroma. Synthetics in such an experiment will melt faster, giving the smell of chemicals, unpleasant.
How to perform a test?
We view this method of testing as too destructive to be beneficial. But some collectors and jewellers 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 a very thin sewing needle. You will want to hold the needle with a pair of pliers to not get burned while heating it.
The concept is simple. You want to heat the needle until its glowing red and then quickly touch it to an inconspicuous spot on the test subject. The best 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, 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 needle is heated until you touch it to the test subject so you need to have your heat source ready and nearby. Heat the needle 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.
Is it possible to set amber on fire? That’s what you should see if the stone is natural. Amber has a piney, sweet, soft smell when burnt, which cannot be falsified. Meanwhile, copal melts at temperatures lower than 150°C and diffuses a smell of burning resin.
This test is mostly used to check if the amber piece contains any other materials. Natural ambers contain small bubbles in its microscopic structure. When you apply heat to amber, these bubbles evaporate making the amber piece transparent. The higher the temperature, the darker the amber becomes.
Amber begins to light up about three seconds after contact with the fire. If you hold it on the fire for a second or two longer, and then take it away from the flame, it will continue to burn on its own, quite intensively. In the hearth of burning amber boils. Amber smoke is black – that is, when burning amber smokes. As soon as you extinguish the burning amber, the remainder of the smoke emitted by the heated fragment will amaze you with the purity of its whiteness.
Method 8 – Solvent Test
Amber is relatively resistant to alcohol and solvents – while almost all plastics are destroyed upon contact with acetone. Acetone or a nail polish remover can damage plastic imitations by changing their color or creating a rough, matte surface at the point of contact.
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.
Putting a drop of ether, solvent or 95% ethyl alcohol on the surface of amber, you will not see any reactions. Natural amber does not disintegrate and will not become sticky.
How to perform a test?
Simply apply a drop of acetone or 95% athyl alcohol to the surface of the test subject and then let it evaporate. Copal will usually become slightly tacky. Amberwill have no response.
Pressed amber will behave alternatively. If you rub the pressed amber with a cloth moistened with ether, the surface of the stone will become sticky. Some plastics do not react with alcohol, but dissolve in acetone. Glass fakes do not react with any of these reagents.
Some copal requires two applications to begin to dissolve. If you are suspicious of your results, apply another drop in the same location and repeat the test. But remember, copal will be hopelessly spoiled by any reagent!
On a note! Do not get carried away by chemical experiments with the face of jewelry made of amber. With prolonged exposure to reagents and natural amber, stains may remain. It usually takes 3-5 seconds to recognize the fake.
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.
Method 9 – Light & Luminescence
If you have spent a lot of money on buying amber, this is the best test for you. For this, you will need a UV lamp.
In the light of the ultraviolet lamp amber luminesces to some extent. In the transparent samples one can see a bluish glow of different intensities. With a decrease in the transparency of the stone, the glow effect weakens. Smoky translucent amber luminesce with a pale blue color.
Under the action of ultraviolet light, the structure of undulating amber strands, banding, and transitions caused by different degrees of turbidity are well visible. “Cloudy” and “bone” amber glow milky white with a faint bluish tinge. Check our post about Amber Color to know more about the varieties amber have.
Untreated amber with a so-called sugar crust luminesces in brown tones. Synthetic resin based on bakelite in the ultraviolet rays is inert, casein imitations glow yellow.
When buying amber jewelry in the store, you do not always have the opportunity to do the above manipulations. The seller simply will not allow you to spoil the decoration with a hot needle or sharp metal edge.
However, nothing will not prevent you from thoroughly inspecting the amber ornamentation! If the seller has a counterfeit money detector, ask him to check the amber for luminescence. A good seller should not refuse you.
Common sense and a bit of theory will help you understand the situation. The chances to buy a fake will decrease to a minimum.