Shopping for Amber: Are You Confused?
The first time I purchased a fine strand of amber was about ten years ago. I was on my once a year visit to the big city to purchase gemstones at wholesale prices. This was before I learned about purchasing online and even long before Magpie Gemstones was a twinkle in the owner’s eye. I spotted the amber when I first came in the door of the establishment and was fascinated by the large pieces of amber in various colors. I touched the strand and wanted it. Then I looked at the price tag. “Horrors”, I thought. How can something this lightweight cost so much? I left that strand hanging in place and spent the next two hours filling my tray with other beads. Yet, that strand of amber kept calling me back saying “you know I need to go home with you.” So, it went home with me and I’ve never regretted buying it. I’ve used a few pieces of the strand at a time through all these years and probably still have a bit left. Now, that price I thought was too expensive would be an extreme bargain since amber costs have shot up. At that time, I didn’t even realize where amber came from, but knew it was beautiful.
Now, I’ve learned, as you probably already know that amber is fossilized resin derived from plant resin found in ancient forests. It is not produced by a single type of tree and it is not sap. The shapeless semi-solid resin that drips and oozes down trees is secreted through the epithelial cells of the plant. If you visualize this process, it’s easy to see how debris becomes trapped in the resin and may appear in the amber that you purchase. This debris can include insects, seeds, leaves and feathers. The resin becomes buried and then fossilized. First the resin turns into copal and then finally it becomes amber. You can find a more scholarly description of this process at http://www.emporia.edu/earthsci/amber/whatis.htm. I can’t help but think of honey as a very simplistic analogy. (Any scientist reading this will probably cringe.) If you have ever spilled a jar of honey, you know that it slowly oozes across the floor or cabinet grabbing any little particle in its path. If you don’t clean it up fairly quickly, it becomes hard.
There are various theories regarding why a plant produces resin. It may be produced as the plant tries to protect itself. Perhaps the plant has been wounded and exuded the resin to help heal the injury. It is also possible the plant produces resin for removing excess acetate.
Uses for Amber
Amber used in the production of jewelry is also utilized in other ways. The other products likely come from the fact that amber can be heated. Amber will burn, but if heated gradually in an oil-bath it becomes soft and flexible. Some factories use this process to produce pipes and other smoking tools. Amber may also be used in the production of perfume and is valued by some for its purported healing properties.
Real or Fake Amber
If you are reading this article as a result of visiting the Magpie Gemstones (www.magpiegemstones.com) website, you are likely interested in knowing what to consider when purchasing amber for making jewelry. First, you should know that a very large amount of fake amber is available. It is easily produced by “heating colored plastic, using copal (not 'mature' amber) or other modern polymers.” (http://www.ambericawest.com/real_amber.html) Considering that it has taken millions of years for resin to become amber, we can easily see how copal which has not matured to this stage would indeed be less expensive than real amber. Yet, how can you spot the fake? The answer is that unless you are an amber expert, you may not be able to make this identification. Copal does have a lower specific gravity than real amber making it slightly lighter than an equal volume of amber. This is so slight that you should not trust your own estimate.
Some may suggest that you follow your nose to determine the authenticity of amber. When heated, real amber emits a piney smell while the plastic fake amber has a sweeter odor. It seems to me that this could easily confuse my nose. Also, amber produces black smoke when it burns, but plastic can produce the same color smoke. Copal, however does burn with a whitish smoke. So, if you get black smoke, would you gamble on whether you had located real amber or plastic? I wouldn’t.
You may also consider using acetone to determine real from fake amber. Acetone doesn’t affect real amber but may dissolve the outer layer of plastic specimens. The surface of copal will get a bit sticky when acetone is applied.
Inclusions, such as insects, seeds, etc., may be added to fake amber by drilling a hole and inserting the debris. I can’t help but wonder if finding that perfect spider in amber might be an indication that the substance is fake. If I were a spider getting trapped in oozing resin, I doubt I would remain in perfect shape.
The only true was to make sure you are purchasing real amber is to locate a vendor you trust. Do you have a vendor that can tell you the background behind that strand you are purchasing? Is the vendor willing to explain how he/she knows the amber is real? Has the vendor been straight with you regarding other purchases you have made? If you don’t trust the vendor, find another one.
Types of Amber
Research indicates that there are a variety of types of amber. It can be classified according to both its color and/or it transparency ranging from clear to cloudy. For example, “fatty” amber contains little bubbles and frothy amber can’t be polished because it is too soft. “Soily” amber has gas bubbles and debris. Colorwise, there is online mention of a blue amber named Dominican Amber and one named Carribean Amber. I found much of this a bit confusing.
Green Amber also exists and is quite beautiful. There is a natural Green Amber that is a subtle green. Most Green Amber is amber that has been heated. Most Amber will not not turn green but some will. That is why Green Amber is usually a bit more expensive. I have also seen finished pendants that are green. Often, they are yellow Amber with a black paper backing under the pendant. Amber may also be named for the location in which it is found, such as Baltic Amber.
I hope that you are now less confused that you were at the beginning of this information. At the very least, I hope that you are more aware of the difficulty of proving that you are purchasing real amber and the definite need for developing a relationship with a trustworthy vendor.
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