Fake amber is not hard to make. It can be made from heating coloured plastic, using copal (not ‘mature’ amber) or other modern polymers. Amber that looks ‘too perfect’ probably is! Quality specimens run into the thousands of dollars.
It is not particularly easy to identify fake amber from real amber. So, how does one determine if you have a real sample of amber?
First, one must understand that amber is the fossilized resin from ancient trees. In the Dominican Republic, the tree is Hyemnaea (a leguminous tree). Most modern legumes are smaller plants that have nodules in the roots which contain bacteria that put nitrogen back into the soil; peas, and clover are legumes. Modern day legume trees are common in South America. In the Baltic area, millions of years ago, either pine trees or eucalyptus (gum) trees probably produced the resin that turned into amber.
Resin from either of these types of trees, when placed in the proper conditions, turns into amber. There is an intermediate stage where the resin might look like amber, but is not changed enough (polymerized) to be considered real amber. This ‘young’ resin is called copal. Copal is always much younger than amber and has some characteristics which distinguish it from real amber. For instance, copal is generally less dense than amber.
Density is measured in something called specific gravity. Regular amber often has a specific gravity of 1.05 to 1.10 (where 1 is the same as water). Copal looks similar, but has a lower specific gravity of 1.03 to 1.08. A specific gravity of above 1.0 will cause the object to sink in fresh water. While amber and copal will both sink in regular water, salt water has a higher density. Amber and copal will both float in salt water.
One good way to determine fake amber is the ‘hot point test’. This is where the fine point of a very hot needle is put in the amber. Real amber has a piny smell (or burnt resinous smell) and fake amber can have an electrical, plastic or sweet smell to it. The problem with this test is the willingness to sacrifice potential prize piece of amber to this test.
Burning test: amber burns with a black smoke, copal will burn with a whitish smoke, plastic imitations can also burn with a black smoke. However again, who is willing to sacrifice their sample to this rather harsh test?
Another test is the acetone test. Acetone is the odoriferous chemical that is used to remove nail polish. Copal is slightly soluble (hasn’t hardened enough over the millions of years), so the surface will get sticky. Regular amber is not soluble and therefore acetone should not do anything to it. With plastic fakes, acetone can dissolve the outer layer, which can sometimes be a shellac coating. This is probably one of the easier tests.
Amber is fluorescent. That is, when ultraviolet light (UV) is directed on the amber, it will fluoresce. Common fluorescent colours are yellow, blue, green and orange. The intensity of the fluorescence can be different with different types of amber. Dominican Republic amber usually fluoresces blue. This is a simple test if you happen to have a black light. Just shine the black light on the sample and observe the ‘shine’.
Often a certificate of authenticity is provided if the amber is genuine. For our full range of amber teething necklaces click here