There is an enormous amount of fear out there around the idea of accidentally purchasing fake amber. We regularly get questions about this.
1. We get all of our Baltic amber direct from Lithuania.
2. We have a long and trusted relationship with our supplier* there.
*In fact, we recently made a visit to Lithuania to check out their operations in person and you can see pictures from our visit! (tap here)
3. We test every shipment using UV and spot-test using the saltwater method.
4. We have become very accustomed to the appearance, weight, texture, and smell of the real thing, and would know immediately if something was wrong with our shipment.
There IS a giant fake amber market out there, but it's dealing primarily with large pieces of amber, much, much larger than what you would typically find in a teething necklace.
Fake amber products are more often going to be priced in the $100-$100,000 range, and have things like rare inclusions, bugs trapped in the amber, etc., like this one:
Which led to this:
(If you don't recognize the image above, go watch the movie Jurassic Park.)
So overall we suspect that the fear that sweeps through the amber teething necklace community every few years is largely unnecessary. However, for educational purposes, here’s a rundown of the usual list of materials used for amber imitations, and how you can spot them. Also below that you'll find a list of tests you can perform at home, how to do them, and which we recommend (or don't).
Copal - Copal, which was mentioned above, is often sold as Baltic amber. With enough time Copal would become amber, but Copal isn’t truly fossilized. Copal is ‘young tree resin’ (1 thousand to 1 million years old) whereas true amber would be closer to 40 million years old. Natural inclusions are possible in Copal, but usually they are falsified. Insects are inserted in them that are too big and too good-looking. Copal melts at a rather low temperature (lower than 150 C ), and tends to melt rather than burn. However it still will diffuse the "sweet" smell of burning resins, just like real amber, making it difficult to spot.
Glass - Glass is pretty easy to distinguish, it’s more solid, cold to the touch, etc. It can’t be scratched by metal and fireproof, whereas real amber can be scratched and will burn if exposed to flame.
Phenolic Resins - This material is commonly used to produce artificial amber beads. These amber beads tend to have very exact shapes (i.e. oval, faceted), the color is very similar to real amber (dark red, cloudy yellow). However after heating it doesn’t diffuse the smell of pine-tree resins, which is the key characteristic of Baltic amber.
Celluloid - Celluloid (cellulose nitrate) is usually yellow and cloudy. Optically it is difficult to distinguish it from amber. Celluloid is more solid and not so combustible. After heating, it diffuses the smell of burnt plastic.
Casein - This is a plastic made from milk. The beads have a cloudy, turbid yellow color. It is a little bit heavier than amber. After heating, it diffuses the smell of burnt plastic.
Modern Plastic - Modern plastic (polyester, polystyrene) are used to produce artificial amber and inclusions that look very real. However like in Copal, falsified inclusions are too big (more than 10 mm) and clearly seen, inserted in the very center of the plastic. After heating, it diffuses the smell of burnt plastic.
Pressed Amber - When small remnants of amber are fused together using high pressure or major heat source, the result is called “pressed” amber. While pressed amber is cheap and relatively available, it will not perform the same way original, natural amber does. Because the original pieces of amber have been compressed, the singular power of each piece is compromised. It is inexpensive to buy but if you’re interested in the the healing aspects of Baltic amber, you will not experience them with the pressed product. Pressed Amber will look more like plastic, perfectly round, no air bubbles or imperfections. However it will burn and smell like real amber, so you have to rely largely on a visual inspection to tell pressed amber from the naturally formed beads.
One thing that we have learned over the years is that it is actually very hard to do these tests well. As you look through the Internet you’ll find some version of the following list of tests copied over and over again without any more real information. The culprit of most of our false alarms are with the ‘Hot Needle’ test which is terribly difficult to do.
Below is our version of the traditional list, modified by what we have learned. Again we recommend the Saltwater and UV tests as the easiest and most non-invasive ways to test your amber.
Visual Inspection (Not Rocket Science...) - The first thing you’ll want to look out for is plastic, pressed, and glass amber that is obviously ‘too perfect’. Amber beads can be polished to near-perfect rounds, but if all of the beads on your string are totally picture-perfect, something is probably wrong. Real amber has air bubbles, and if clear enough to let light pass, you’ll see imperfections within the bead, cracks, etc. Real amber is warm to the touch and has a slight ‘tacky’ feel (verses slick like glass). It also feels lighter in your hands than you would expect it to.
The Saltwater Test (Easy!) - Aside from looking at your amber, the next least damaging test you can perform is to mix up some salt water (dissolve one part salt in two parts water) and throw the necklace in. Real Baltic amber floats, fakes don’t. (You can try tossing in some plastic or glass beaded jewelry as a control item and you’ll see what we mean.)
The Ultraviolet Light Test (Our Favorite!) - Real Baltic amber will fluoresce under UV light while copal won’t. This is a super easy test to do, particularly if your amber is the on lighter side. You’ll need a real UV light (think LED UV flashlight or florescent tube, traditionally called a black light.) In addition to testing amber, these are also useful in doing your own Crime Scene Investigation, finding scorpions, and traumatizing your children after they’ve wet the bed.
There’s almost no information on how to interpret the results of this test online but we’ve experimented extensively and here’s what we’ve found:
1. Milk & Butter and Super Butter show up like yellow highlighter at the Friday night Glow-Bowl. Almost painful to look at, extremely easy to identify the real thing. Obviously you can mimic this with fluorescent plastic, but then under natural lighting the plastic is going to look nothing like real amber, more like a neon ear stud a gothic kid would buy at the mall.
2. Lemon and the Lemon bits within Dark Green will fluoresce a bluish color. Most amber UV test information will say that ALL real amber fluoresces blue, but that’s a radical oversimplification and just not true. Amber that is nearly clear (very light lemon) gives off the most bluish color.
3. As you shift hues into darker yellows and oranges with shades of Honey, the non-fluorescing colors within the bead mix with the blue color and generate greens and whatnot, with much less brightness. You’ll also note how semi-polish glow less, the rough surface is not as mirrored as a full-polish bead and naturally absorbs more light.
4. Darker amber won’t fluoresce hardly at all. You’ll see almost no reaction in colors such as Cognac and Dark Cherry and their semi-polish variants, Nutmeg and Coffee. Sometimes you’ll get flecks of bright fluorescence from pockets of lighter color within the beads that you’d never notice with the naked eye.
So there you go, we’re pretty sure that we’re the first to publish this kind of information on how to interpret the UV test. Expect to see the above list copied all over the Internet on other amber sites within the next few years. :)
Below are other traditionally listed tests that are a bit harder to pull off and often involve damaging your amber... :(
The Smell Test (Tricky) - Natural Baltic amber has that specific pine resin smell which apparently is difficult to obtain when producing falsifications.
Unfortunately most of the tests in this area involve heat and fire and, we’ve found, are horribly difficult to do well, particularly if you are trying to not totally destroy your necklace in the process!
To perform the smell test you have to either burn a bead (hold with tweezers into a candle flame) or, if you don’t want to destroy your jewelry, stick a hot needle into a spot that’s less noticeable. Carefully smell the smoke, if it smells a bit like Christmas (strong pine scent), you’re good. If it smells like burnt plastic, that’s bad. Please note that the pine scent can be quite strong and sometimes isn't necessarily pleasant. That is why this test is unreliable; some people confuse the strong scent emitted by the amber with what they suppose a fake would smell like since they expect the pine scent to be pleasant...it's not!
We found the needle test really hard to do (try holding a hot needle with tweezers!) so if you have a loose bead available and need a definitive answer, burning a bead is the best way to go. You’ll note that real amber will ‘flake’ and burn in stages, whereas plastic will melt. If you keep it in the flame long enough the bead may even shatter, so be careful that little eyes are not too close to your ‘science experiment’ (yes, testing your amber with your children counts as homeschooling).
In theory it is also possible to heat the amber by rubbing it between your palms (to produce the pine resin smell) but difficult if the amber is polished, which usually it is.
Again, this is the number one test that people have issues with, they’ve tried to do the hot needle test and/or even burned a bead or two and have mistaken the strong pine and smoke scent as a more plasticy smell. The pine scent is very strong, and doesn’t necessarily smell great to everyone. Let’s just say we wouldn’t burn it as incense in our home. :)
The Acetone Test - This test checks of the solubility of the amber in acetone, you can use alcohol (isopropanol or ethanol) or even nail polish remover. Note that this test is a bit tricky, we’ve not not found it to be terribly easy to discern the results. Put a drop on the amber and let it evaporate some. Copal will dissolve so it’ll be sticky and fingerprints can be made in the surface, amber will be unchanged. Another way is to dip the string of beads into some nail polish remover and in some cases you’ll see the color run right off of imitations. This test won’t hurt your amber if it’s real.
The Scratch Test - Real Baltic amber has a hardness of 5 - 6 on the Moh’s scale so it should be easily scratched by metal. As mentioned above, glass won’t scratch. This WILL hurt your amber (if it’s real) so attempt to scratch in a unnoticeable area (kind of hard to do on an already small bead). Not a great test because it damages your amber and it’s easier to tell amber from glass by temperature and weight (glass is colder and heavier, see the Saltwater Test).
The Polarized Light Test - Place the amber between two sheets of polarized glass, then rotate one of the pieces. You should be able to see a display of rainbow colors in either amber or copal. Plastic will appear unchanged.
The Static Test - Rub your amber vigorously with a soft cloth. Real amber will develop a static charge allowing it to pick up small bits of paper, whereas copal won’t.
IR-spectroscopy - R-spectroscopy is the most effective scientific method for identifying fossil resins. Baltic amber can be characterized by IR-spectrum segment called "Baltic amber shoulder". If you have a spectroscopy machine at home, you’re all set. :) Seriously though, here's a couple of examples, reports on Baltic amber that our supplier provided us:
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Or see all of our Baltic amber jewelry styles: