How to Identify Genuine Baltic Amber from Imitations or Fakes
Baltic amber is considered the highest quality in the world. But because amber is a lightweight organic fossil resin, it is possible to imitate using lightweight plastics and synthetics.
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.
Copal is an immature resin and is sometimes passed off as amber. It is said to be immature because not all the volatile terpenes have left the resin via geological processes over millions of years. Therefore it is younger in age than true amber and will not stand up to the following tests.
It is not particularly easy to identify fake amber from real amber; however there are several different testing methods to determine genuine Baltic Amber from imitations.
Here are some of the testing methods that should help determine if your product is made from genuine Baltic Amber or from an imitation materiel.
Test 1 - The Scratch Test
Amber is not hard, when using the Moh's scale. It ranks usually from 2 to 2.5. Your fingernail is about 2 and thus it is very difficult to scratch amber. Scratch one of the beads with your fingernail. If you make a mark, it's more than likely not amber.
This test is not 100% accurate however as some harder plastics won't scratch, so if it doesn't make a mark it may still be plastic.
Test 2 – The Taste Test
Wash the bead in soapy water and rinse. Run your tongue over the surface. Amber and copal are tasteless while plastic or other synthetic substances have a chemical taste.
While this test may help you determine if your amber product is plastic or synthetic, it won’t prove whether or not it is amber rather than copal. Also, if the beads have been polished (as most amber jewellery products are) even genuine amber will more than likely be almost tasteless. Therefore I would rate this particular test as highly inaccurate.
Test 3 - The Static Test
Amber is warm to the touch and when rubbed it will become electro statically charged and will attract lint/dust particles and some very light items.
Rub the bead briskly with a soft cloth to create heat then hold the bead over some small pieces of tissue. The amber should attract the tissue to the amber.
Test 4 - The Float Test
Amber is buoyant in salt water. To do this test, mix about 1 part salt to 2 parts warm water and dissolve the salt completely. Drop your piece into the mixture. Plastic and copal will sink, while amber should float.
If you are testing jewellery products using the float test, try to keep the clasp or any metal pieces out of the water as these products will cause the product to sink, even though it may be genuine amber. Also, the string or cord used to make amber necklaces and bracelets can also cause genuine amber to sink.
Test 5 - The UV/Black Light Test
Use a black or UV light. Real Amber, regardless of the colour will show up as either Blue or a Yellow butterscotch Opaque colour under a ultra-violet light. Copal will show up as white while plastic does not react at all to the light.
A very reliable test although obviously not everyone has access to a UV or Black Light.
Test 6 - The Acetone Test
Copal (immature resin) and plastic do not hold up to solvents. Take a few drops of acetone (fingernail polish remover) or alcohol and drip it over the surface of your piece. If the surface becomes sticky, or the fluid takes on the colour of the bead or piece of amber, chances are it's not genuine.
Amber will not be harmed and will not dissolve under these solvents.
Test 7 – The Heat Test
Amber does not melt. It will burn away like incense. Copal will melt, as will plastic.
Heat a needle point in a flame until it is red-hot. Touch the heated tip to the bead or piece of amber.
If the piece is plastic the material will melt quickly and give off a plastic, chemical smell. The hot point will make the plastic stick and leave a black mark.
Genuine amber will not melt but rather burn like incense and smell like burning pine wood, sweet and pleasant. It should also produce a whitish smoke when burning. The hot point will also make amber brittle and chip off.
Copal may release a similar smell to amber however it will melt rather than burn so you should still be able to determine if it is copal or genuine amber.
In my opinion this test is the most reliable.