Amber Real or Not?
Due to the growing demand for amber jewellery and the limited source, scientists have discovered many ways to synthesize it. Unfortunately nowadays, counterfeit amber is widespread. Below are some tests you can do at home in order to tell if your amber is real or not. We also list some of the most common amber forgeries and ways to distinguish them from real Baltic amber.
How to Test if your Baltic Amber is real or not.
1. Visual Inspection
The first test you should preform on your amber is a visual check. Genuine Baltic amber is soft and can be crafted into round beads. However, genuine amber beads are never perfectly round and each bead should not be exactly the same. You should notice imperfections in the beads, this can range from small cracks & air bubbles to natural craters in the beads.
2. Smell Test
Smell tests are the most effective because natural amber has a specific smell, which is difficult to obtain when producing falsifications. After heating, real Baltic amber diffuses the specific delicate fragrance of pine-tree resins. Falsifications using Copal diffuse the smell of "sweet" resins when heated and those using other materials diffuse the smell of burnt plastic.
To heat amber, you could use the "Rubbing" method, which is to rub amber in the palm of the hand. It is possible to heat real amber by rubbing it until it releases the smell of pine-tree resins. Although this method needs a very strong hand as it is rather difficult to heat amber (especially when polished) to the necessary temperature, especially with amber set in jewellery as trying to rub it into other materials could stretch the amber.
Another heating method is the "Hot needle test". Stick a heated needle into a subtle hidden place in the amber (a hole of a drilled bead, ect). If you smell definite pine-tree resins it means it is real Baltic amber.
3. Salt Water Test
The specific gravity of amber (and also Copal) (1.04-1.1) is lower than the specific gravity of salt-water (1.15). Therefore, it will float in the water while other materials will all sink. Mix up a solution of one part salt to two parts water in a container and stir. After several minutes of stirring, the salt will dissolve. To carry out the test, wash the sample amber with fresh water before placing in the saltwater solution. Genuine Amber will float in this solution while others will sink to the bottom. This test must only be used with the amber with no added strings, or metal attachments - these extras could make the amber sink.
To be finally convinced the floating amber is real, the "smell" test is indispensable.
4. IR-spectroscopy Test
IR-spectroscopy is the most effective scientific method for identifying fossil resins. Baltic amber could be characterized by IR-spectrum segment called "Baltic amber shoulder".
Common Amber Forgeries.
Copal is sold as Baltic amber, but in fact, this is a very young tree resin ( 1000- 1million years old). Natural "inclusions" are possible in Copal, but usually they are falsified. Insects are inserted in them that are too big and too perfect looking. Copal melts at a slightly lower temperature (lower than 150 C), and tends to melt rather than burn. After heating, it diffuses the "sweet" smell of burning resins.
Celluloid (cellulose nitrate) is usually a yellow & cloudy color. Optically it is difficult to distinguish it from real amber. Celluloid is much more robust and not as combustible. After heating, it diffuses the smell of burnt plastic.
It is easy to distinguish glass from amber. Glass is more solid, and it cannot be scratched by metal. Glass is cold and fireproof.
This is a plastic made from milk. The beads have a cloudy, turbid yellow color. It is a little bit heavier than amber. After heating, it diffuses the smell of burnt plastic.
5. Phenolic resins
Frequently, this material is found in artificial amber beads. These amber beads have especially exact shape (oval, faceted); the color is very similar to real amber (dark red, cloudy yellow, limpid). After heating, it does not diffuse the smell of pine-tree resins, which is characteristic for Baltic amber.
6. Modern Plastic
Modern plastic (polyester, polystyrene) is used to produce artificial amber. Optically this substitute can be very hard to distinguished because it uses official amber colors & limpidity. After heating, it diffuses the smell of burnt plastic.