Which one is Amber?
Over the years I have collected a large number of 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 surrounds 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 actually feels more like plastic or Lucite than rock or glass. Bakelite is very heavy.
The biggest piece of information I can share is that Amber is fluorescent under black light. It's an easy to do test and it is nondestructive. You just need a black light flashlight or a black light lightbulb from the hardware store. Or you can find them online fairly easy and they are inexpensive.
So let's play a game!
Is this one?
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 too.
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 right but it is also 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 4 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 really see that green! It's Amber.
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 that too in my collection but 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 actually droplets of water that 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 as 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 not easy 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, 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 a hard time getting the hot needle to go in. Amber is much harder, burns slower and emits a white smoke. It smells wonderful 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, it's ok to use the tap as long as it is very 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, wait a bit longer. Be careful not to melt the piece and make sure to try it in a place where it will not be easily seen. I just 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 just 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 actually 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 of the nail polish removers nowadays are mild. I like the 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, leave a mark on the material surface, which can melt or become tacky and opaque.
Genuine Amber is unaffected, remains shiny and nothing comes 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 given here should be enough for a preliminary test.
Just remember to be safe and careful and test only in a hidden area if you are using 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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