Amber Time!

For me, nothing quite has the warmth and glow of amber. I can almost feel it just talking about it. Get comfortable, relax, and enjoy the warmth and glow of amber…

This is the fourth part of my Faux or Fabulous series. The first was about evaluating family heirlooms, the second was on shopping for gemstone jewelry with confidence, and the third was about jade.

A Few Words of Caution

Anyone – even the experts – can be fooled by a good fake. This guide is meant to help you learn to spot the more obvious fakes. When in doubt, always consult your local gemologist.

Formation of Amber

Amber is one of the few organic gemstones used in jewelry (others include pearls, coral and jet). It is formed by the polymerization of tree resin, which turns it into a natural plastic-like substance. Because tree resin is soft and sticky, insects and plants can be trapped and preserved in amber.

By definition, amber is at least 30 million years old. Tree resin specimens younger than 30 million years are called copal, which fetches a lower price than genuine amber.

Properties of Amber

Amber is extremely lightweight, and with a Mohs hardness of 2-2.5, it is very easily scratched. Be sure to wrap your amber jewelry carefully for storage to avoid scratching it with other pieces of jewelry. Amber is best known for its warm golden honey hues, but it also forms in reds, blues, greens, and browns. Because amber is so lightweight, it can be difficult to distinguish it from plastic imitations.

Value Factors

In general, larger pieces of amber are considered more valuable, because larger pieces are more uncommon. Light honey amber with good transparency is particularly prized, as are specimens containing insects. Specimens containing plant matter are considered less valuable.

Salt Water Test

If you have a piece of amber that hasn’t been set in jewelry, there’s a very easy test you can do to distinguish it from plastic. Amber is very lightweight, but it will sink in regular fresh water. However, it will float in saturated salt water. Mix one part salt with two parts hot water, and stir until the salt dissolves. Genuine amber will float on the salt water. Most plastic will sink.

Static Electricity

A nice little old-fashioned test you can do on amber, even if it’s set in jewelry is to rub it with a piece of wool. Genuine amber will cause a slight static electric build-up on the wool. You can then pick up a small piece of ash with the wool.

Fluorescence

Here’s a test I love to do. I have a small pocket-sized UV light in my gem ID tool box. Genuine amber will fluoresce in a dark room under UV light. The bad news is that copal also fluoresces under UV light, and it can take a practiced eye to tell the two apart

Hot Needle Test

Do Not This Try at Home!
The next test I’m going to describe is a destructive test, so absolutely do not do it to your amber jewelry at home. This test is only good for pieces you don’t mind damaging. Heat a needle with a flame, and touch it lightly to the amber. If the resulting smoke smells sweet and piney, you’ve got amber. If the resulting smoke is acrid, then you’ve got burnt plastic. Again, don’t do this to your amber jewelry – please take it to an experienced gemologist if you would like it tested.

One Last Caveat

A common treatment that is done to amber is called assembly. Small pieces of genuine amber are heated and fused together to form bigger pieces. This material sells at a much lower price point than natural amber. I personally like assembled amber as a low-cost alternative. As always, be sure to ask what you’re buying. 

Next Time on Faux or Fabulous

Colorful and mysterious: OPALS. Keep an eye on my blog – it’s coming soon!