How to Test Amber and Bakelite
How to test Amber, Bakelite, and similar materials safely by using easy, non-destructive methods and materials you probably have at home.
Which one is Amber?
Over the years, I have collected many Amber, Copal, Faturan, Lucite, Bakelite, and Crystal/glass beads and jewelry. Many look very similar. How can you tell them apart? This article contains some clues to use on the go and an easy definitive test to do anywhere you can dim lights. The darker the surroundings, the easier it is to see the results.
Amber is lightweight, warm to the touch, and sometimes has inclusions like insects, leaves, and maybe even air and water bubbles.
Amber is fossilized sap from extinct pine trees. It feels more like plastic or Lucite than rock or glass. Bakelite is very heavy.
The most significant information I can share is that Amber is fluorescent under black light. It’s an easy-to-do test, and it is non-destructive. You need a black light flashlight or a black light bulb from the hardware store. Or you can find them
online relatively easy, and they are inexpensive.
So let’s play a game!
Is this one?
Please tell me if you think this round bead necklace is Amber. It looks like it and is warm to the touch. Scroll down for the answer.
No! It doesn’t fluoresce. You get a surface reflection but no reaction. The fluorescence is generally a muddy green color.
How about this one?
It’s an unusual cut with a matte finish, something you don’t commonly see in tumbled Amber, but it is lightweight in relation to size and warm to the touch.
Let’s shine the Ultraviolet light on it:
See that glow? That’s fluorescence. This necklace is Amber! What a find!
How about this faceted bead necklace?
The color is correct, but it is cool to the touch.
A little black light and…
Oh, well, no reaction, no fluorescence. It is not Amber. Because it is cold to the touch and relatively heavy for its size, it is safe to say it is glass.
Last but not least
I used four examples in hopes you will be able to see the fluorescence well. This necklace is highly polished and lightweight relative to size.
Wow! You can see that green! It’s Amber.
Here is a little more info:
Genuine Amber floats in Salt Water.
The population on the shores of the Baltic Sea can collect it as it rolls in with the tide, mostly after a storm. Some Amber is mined, and there are mines in different places on the planet, including the Dominican Republic. I have some of it, too, in my collection, but I prefer the Baltic Amber. The Dominican one has a different feel.
Be wary of reconstituted Amber!
If you see several shiny disks inside the “Amber,” it is more than likely it is reconstituted or simply an imitation. These disks are uncommon in natural Amber as they are droplets of water dispersed, creating the little disks and are “frozen” inside. Inclusions of insects can be added to this process. Natural Flora and Fauna inclusions are naturally rare, more so today.
Green Amber is not natural.
Green Amber is heated to achieve that color and is not natural. Don’t be fooled; much of it will fade into a horrible murky color over time.
Amber is harder than most.
Amber is harder than most imitations or similar materials and flakes easily. It is difficult to slice or facet and is very tricky to drill (I can speak from experience here).
Copal is called “immature” sap because although very similar to Amber, it has not fossilized and is not millions of years old, more than likely comes from another tree since the trees that formed Baltic Amber have been extinct for a very long time. It is soft, slices easily, and burns easily. If you take a red hot needle to Copal, it will melt easily and also have that wonderful pine scent. When you try this test on Amber, you will have difficulty getting the hot needle in. Amber is much harder, burns slower, and emits white smoke. It smells lovely and has been used as incense for thousands of years.
Bakelite is heavy.
It is an early plastic made using formaldehyde. Since formaldehyde is a deadly substance, Bakelite’s production has been halted for decades. It’s easy to tell real Bakelite and Bakelite from Amber.
In a bowl that is heat resistant, add very hot water. Using the tap is okay if it is hot but not boiling. Dip the piece in question into the water for a second or two. Bakelite will almost immediately have a terrible smell. It will smell like, well, formaldehyde.
When in doubt, dip again, and wait a bit longer. Be careful not to melt the piece, and try it in a place where it will not be easily seen. I open the hot tap and let it run until it gets so hot I can’t keep my fingers under it. Then I hold a portion of the piece under the running water and check for the horrible and unmistakable smell. If you can smell that, it’s most likely Bakelite. (You learned the sure-fire Bakelite test, better than anything else, used on the Antiques Road Show too!)
French Bakelite is different and will not emit the smell as it is made from milk derivatives. Only do the hot needle test if you must, as that will damage the piece!
There are many Amber imitations.
These can be affected by solvents. Resin, Bakelite, French Bakelite (derived from milk protein or Casein), Plastics, Lucite, Faturan, and others are affected by solvents. This test can damage the surface, so use extreme caution!
Dab a cotton swab in acetone. I use industrial strength stuff, as some nail polish removers nowadays are mild. I like pure acetone for a definitive test. You can get it at almost any drugstore, supermarket, and beauty supply shop. You probably have some at home.
Rub the wet cotton swab on a hidden spot on the piece (between 2 beads in the back of a necklace, for instance). The imitation materials will come off on the cotton swab and leave a mark on the material surface, which can melt or become tacky and opaque.
Genuine Amber is unaffected, remains shiny, and has nothing come off on the cotton swab.
About glass and crystal
Glass and crystal are heavy and cold, like the faceted bead necklace we tested above.
Amber is warm to the touch and light for its size.
Final thoughts and a warning:
There are other means of testing Amber in laboratories, but the guidelines should be enough for a preliminary test.
Remember to be safe and careful and test only in a hidden area if you use the acetone or solvent test or the hot needle test. These tests are destructive and will likely cause irreversible damage to the piece.
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Frequently Asked Questions
(:1f48e:) How do I tell if this is real Amber?
There are many tests for Amber. If you want to know how to easily test Amber and Amber beads without damage like a pro, you can learn how here.
(:1f48e:) Where can I find genuine Amber?
Purchase genuine Amber from a trusted source. You can browse our Amber Collection. We carry fine antique and vintage Amber bead necklaces, beaded bracelets, earrings, and brooches from the Victorian, Art Deco, and Contemporary eras.
(:1f48e:) What is Bakelite Amber?
Bakelite and Amber are two very different materials. Amber imitations can be made of Bakelite, an artificial resin that is no longer made. Learn how to tell the difference between Amber and Bakelite Amber.
(:1f48e:) Is Green Amber real?
Yes, it is, but it is not natural. Green Amber is generally heat-treated, and sometimes the color will fade. Learn more about Amber and Amber beads at The Notebook jewelry blog.