Amber is organic, the fossilized resin of 40 million year
old trees, and while the chemical composition varies, the main resin in
amber is succinite. Colors include all the shades from yellow to brown,
orange to red, and, more rarely, tints of violet, blue, green, or white.
KINDS of AMBER
The Baltic area is well known for its ambers. Sea Amber is "fished" from the sea bottom or found floating on the top. Pit Amber is mined from the earth. Clear Amber is a highly transparent material. Fatty Amber looks like fat and is full of bubbles. Cloudy Amber is so full of tiny bubbles that it is more opaque than Fatty Amber. Massive Amber is compact and the color ranges from reddish yellow to almost colorless. Foamy Amber is chalky & doesn't polish. Bone Amber resembles bone or ivory with bubbles and is opaque, soft & doesn't polish.
Gedanite from the Baltic is a resin that does not contain succinite and is sometimes classed as amber and sometimes as a gum.
Other natural ambers: Sicilian Amber (Simetite)
yellow, orange, red, brown, sometimes with overtones of green or blue.
Romanian amber is brown with tones of yellow, red or black. Chinese
Amber (Burmite) is brown, yellow-brown, yellow to orange often
ages to red. Sometimes has natural cracks that contain calcite. Dominica
Amber , yellow to brown.
TREATMENTS, COMPOSITIONS, SUBSTITUTES
Treatment: Natural amber might be dyed, usually by heating & dipping into the dye, causing the dye to be drawn into stress cracks. Clarity can be improved by heating with rapeseed oil, especially common with Cloudy Amber.
Constructed: Amberoid is the melting together of small scraps & pieces of natural ambers and compressing through a sieve & into a solid. The color distribution can be uneven if viewed through a microscope. Coloring with dyes is common.
Substitutes: Amber substitutes & look-a-likes - all plastics, including Amberdan. Composition of plastic and bits of natural amber, pressed & dyed. Glass. *Copal, meerschaum, and other synthetic resins.
*COPAL So far I have seen Copal referred to as a natural resin which is unstable and may deteriorate; as a "recent" resin, and as a "newly created" resin. Apparently it is a natural fossil of the sap of trees in Africa but less than 1,000 years old. In jewelry it is often used to make beads. It is also used as a ingredient of varnishes.
KAURI GUM - Copal from
SEPARATION OF AMBER FROM SUBSTITUTES
Amber vs Bakelite. A jeweler might use the Refractive Index of materials in his separation of amber from other materials. For the collector, sight may give the first clues. Curving swirls of color through the material would be one indicator of plastic. Odor can be an indicator. Briefly dip in very warm water to release the odor. Bakelite smells of carbolic acid. Amber and copal smell like balsam (piney). Obtaining a pine smell does not prove amber, unfortunately, but the choices then are limited to amber, re-constructed amber, amber/plastic composition, & copal.
Amber vs plastics . It may be possible to separate by sight. Curving swirls of color (sort of like swirled paint) through the material in patterns typical of a poured material would indicate plastic. A particular kind of bubble (donut bubble) MAY be an indication but you need to keep in mind that a reconstructed amber may have similar bubbles. Odor. I am not a fan of any destructive test. Nevertheless, if your choice is an inexpensive, throwaway plastic vs amber, it may be a satisfactory choice to use the hot needle test. Do your best to find an inconspicuous place to test. I use the inside of the bead hole but I need to warn you here that many strands of inexpensive plastic beads are strung with an inexpensive, synthetic fibrous white cord, which will melt with the mere nearness of a hot needle. It may be that the very existence of this type of cord, which looks like it might be polypropylene, could be considered an indicator of the likelihood of plastic. Most, not all, plastics smell very acrid. Obtaining a pine smell does not prove amber, unfortunately, but the choices then are limited to amber, re-constructed amber, amber/plastic composition & copal. Assuming that you had already excluded bakelite & glass, if the needle fails to penetrate, then it is probably another type of thermoset plastic.
Amber vs glass . Weight & temperature & sound. Amber is very light weight and is room temperature. Glass is heavy & slightly cooler than room temperature.
Amber vs copal - If you have ruled out all other possibilities, then ether will achieve the separation of amber & copal. A drop of ether will soften copal, causing the surface to become sticky, though I am not sure of the length of time required. This may be destructive to the copal. If you haven't ruled out all other possibilities, you may also cause destruction to plastics or other materials. You may save yourself all this trouble if you become familiar with the look of copal, often used as the big, chunky center bead in African or ethnic necklaces.
Amber vs Kauri Gum - Presumably the same as amber vs copal.
Amber vs reconstructed amber, & amber/plastic composition, and other resins . May be difficult. The shapes of bubbles and/or flow lines may be an indication. Requires complex tests employing chemicals which may be destructive and/or experience & comparisons with known materials and/or careful examination under a microscope.
NOTES: Presence of flora/insects of the forest is not reliable proof of amber. It can be added to plastic, reconstructed amber, & amber/plastic composition.
Amber darkens with age, becoming reddish or browner. I do not know the amount of change or the time involved.
Some amber has "sun spangles", round star burst shapes on a flat plane with distinct radiation from the center, apparently caused by stress within the material. While these seem to be quite distinctive, a novice can easily confuse the real spangles with a round, flattened, single plane inclusion in imitation amber. The latter generally looks like a flattened pancake without radiating lines.
While amber acquires static electricity readily, it is not useful as a test as many plastics also acquire static electricity.
Saturated salt water may be useful as a test, but can be less than definitive. Amber floats assuming clasps or other things do not weight it. Most plastics sink, but there is at least one exception (polystyrene), and plastics could possibly be affected by pockets of air or many air bubbles. I am not certain what Copal does in salt water. Christie Romero, author of Warman's Jewelry , and owner of Center for Jewelry Studies , has furnished the saturated salt water solution recipe: usually it takes about 4 tablespoons of salt (added one at a time) to one cup of hot water. Remember that any salt left remaining in the bead cord will "draw" moisture from the air and may contribute to a more rapid breakdown of the cord fibers.
QUALITY & VALUE
Factors that influence value would be the inclusion of flora & insects, and interestingly enough, the exclusion of same. In times past, the more transparent & flawless the amber, the more desirable it was. That has changed in that pieces with interesting insects & flora are now also very desirable. In general, among knowledgeable collectors, I dare to say that transparency & flawlessness are still valued, and the natural colors most sought, in order, are green, translucent red, & translucent yellow. Remember that these same colors occur in dyed material. Beyond that the value will depend upon color, form, size or volume, attractiveness, geographical area.
Amber cameos have been popular in very recent years. I do not know whether these are molded, laser carved or hand carved, or a combination of thereof. I do not know if the amber is block amber or reconstructed amber.
CHERRY AMBER and GREEN AMBER
It is difficult to know what to say about cherry amber. Dealers love the name and the name is something of a buzz phrase, making hearts quicken. There is a lively commerce in "cherry amber" at premium prices. Personally I believe it must be FAR, FAR rarer than its commerce would indicate. In almost fifteen years, I haven't come across a provable strand or piece of cherry amber, though I have seen quite a few pieces of "cherry amber" that proved to be plastic. A reputable and experienced person, who has tested many more strands of cherry amber than I have, has said that virtually all the "cherry amber" she has seen has turned out to be bakelite. A color range for cherry amber seems to be undefined. I believe that amber exists in reddish colors that might be termed "cherry", though I doubt it is an intense red, and I believe it to be rare. In the past, the strands of beads that I saw being sold as "cherry amber" were a root beer color with tones of red; light passing through them created dark red reflections ~ whether any of them were actually amber is very open to question in light of subsequent experience. Note: Green Amber: Some years ago a dealer presented a deep and intense "green amber", which, when rubbed, had a distinctly bakelite odor. I have heard that more recently the "green amber" from Mexico has tested as plastic.
Recently I received some information about Amber from a reader, who purported to be a friend to a dealer in rare ambers, and these statements may interest you, if accurate: "(1)There is true red amber from Mexico, also amber which shows green and blue/green hues. The darker pieces are rare. Many red amber pieces will lose the red if cut too thin. It is extremely rare to get pidgeon blood red in small sizes. Sicily used to have red amber, it is mined out now. (2) Non-red ambers can be turned red through chemical treatment. (3) There are many sellers of "amber" is Mexico which is actually plastic. (4) As with most things, people think they know about things but are wrong, and do not bother to research before purchasing. Your website tries to close this information gap, but it is up to the buyers to read before buying."
SOURCES OF AMBER
Russia , Poland, Dominican Republic
(shares an island with Haiti). Sicily, China, Burma, Japan, Mexico, United
CARE OF AMBER
Sensitive to many chemicals, including hair spray & perfumes.
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Thoughts and facts about gold, buying/selling, antique values. Including spot gold formulas
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Kinds of ivory, including elephant, mammoth and more. Examples & links. Ivory substitutes. Some guides to separation from other materials.
Definition of Cameo, Intaglio, Reverse Intaglio. Common & unusual materials used in cameos and how to identify them. Factors which affect pricing of cameos.
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