[Ed. Note: This article won first place in the adult
technical-advanced article competition in the California
Federation of Mineralogical Societies in 1994.]
In an article which appeared on the front page of the July 7, 1993, issue of The Wall Street Journal, Warren Getler described the piece of amber he bought for $800: "The eyes of the entombed lizard glared defiantly as I marvelled at the critter's near-perfect state of preservation, its features frozen in time for 30 million years in a sneaker-sized chunk of glossy amber. I loved that lizard. It was a paleontological beauty, the kind of piece amateur fossil collectors like me dream of owning."
Mr. Getler went on to describe the results of an analysis of his piece of amber that was performed at the American Museum of Natural History. In addition to the lizard, the amber contained an anachronism -- two strands of human hair. The specimen was significantly less than 30 million years old. The lizard, it was determined, was a modern Caribbean tree climber known as an anole. The final insult: The "amber" was revealed to be made of nothing more than the unsaturated polyester used to repair fiberglass speedboats.
Getler purchased his speedboat resin, as amber, from a New York gem and mineral dealer. Did the dealer know the "amber" was a fake? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Amber fakes continue to get better while the demand for amber continues to increase. As a result of this fall's release of Jurassic Park on videotape, the demand for amber is expected to skyrocket -- along with the availability of fakes. Mr. Getler quotes Francis Huber, Curator of Paleobotany at the Smithsonian Institution: "A good 80% of the stuff brought to me is fake."
So, with a significant amount of phony amber in the marketplace, how is a potential purchaser able to answer the question: Is it amber or is it fake? In general, no single test is absolutely conclusive. However, the results of several tests, taken together, can tell you whether the specimen you cherish was made 25 or more million years ago by the forces of nature, or last week by an unscrupulous person in their garage.
Specific Gravity: Dissolve two tablespoons of table salt in eight ounces of water. Remove the "amber" from any mountings and drop it into the solution. If it sinks, it is not amber. If it floats, it may be amber.
Hardness: Try scratching the "amber" with your fingernail. Real amber has a hardness of approximately 2.5 on the Moh's scale. If you can scratch the specimen with your fingernail, it is not amber. If you are unable to scratch it with your fingernail, it may be amber.
Static Electricity: Place some small pieces of tissue on a flat surface. Rub the "amber" vigorously against a piece of velvet until it is warm and hold it about one-half inch above the tissue pieces. If the pieces of tissue are not attracted to the specimen, it is not amber. If tissue is attracted to the specimen, it may be amber.
Fluorescence: Place the specimen under a short-wave ultraviolet light. If the specimen does not fluoresce or if it fluoresces other than a very pale blue, it is not amber. If the specimen fluoresces a pale blue under short-wave ultraviolet light, it may be amber.
Smell: Rub the specimen briskly on a piece of cloth until it gets warm, then smell it. If the specimen emits a plastic or chemical smell, it is not amber. If it emits a mild pine or turpentine odor, it may be amber. Look out for the possibility that the specimen might be copal, which we will discuss later.
Refractive Index: Drop the specimen into a glass of mineral oil, such as Johnson's Baby Oil. The oil has a refractive index very close to that of amber -- 1.54. If the edges of the specimen are easily distinguished from the oil by either a dark outline or light halo, the specimen is not amber. If it is difficult to discern the edges of the specimen, it may be amber. Note: This test may be difficult to perform if the amber is exceptionally dark. Try to disregard the color difference between the specimen and the oil.
Taste: Wash the specimen in mild soapy water, rinse it thoroughly, then taste the specimen. If you detect anything other than the mildest taste, especially if you notice any strong, unpleasant, or chemical taste, the specimen is not amber. If the specimen has no taste (or one that is very subtle) it may be amber.
Entomology or Paleontology: If the "amber" contains an insect or other animal, try to have it identified. Most insects and animals found in real amber are extinct. If the animal is not extinct, or if it does not match those found in amber documented from the same location, the specimen is very likely not amber. If the animal is extinct and matches an animal found in amber from the same location, the specimen may be amber. Beware! There have been instances in which an insect has been manually inserted into a piece of real amber.
There are several additional tests which are (or may be) destructive to the specimen. Not everyone may let you perform these tests on a piece of "amber" that you are considering purchasing. However, if you have a specimen of questionable pedigree in your collection, you might consider the following tests:
Hot Needle: Heat a needle until the tip is red hot, then place the point into the specimen. If the needle goes in easily, or if a bad smell is emitted, or if the needle leaves a black mark on the specimen, it is not amber. If the needle enters the specimen slowly and the specimen emits a pine or turpentine smell, it may be amber.
Solubility: Place a drop of acetone, ether, or 95% ethyl alcohol on the specimen. If the area dissolves or if the surface becomes tacky, the specimen is not amber. If the surface remains intact, it may be amber.
Melting Point: If you have an oven or other heating apparatus with an accurate temperature indicator, place the specimen in the oven and heat it. Increase the temperature slowly over time to determine its melting point. If the specimen melts below 390 degrees Fahrenheit, it is not amber. If its melting point is in excess of 715 degrees Fahrenheit, it is also not amber. If the specimen melts between the temperatures of 390 and 715 degrees Fahrenheit, it may be amber.
If you encounter a specimen that looks like amber and passes some, but not all, of the tests mentioned above, you might be dealing with a specimen of copal. Copal is best described as "young" amber. Copal, like amber, is formed from the resin of trees. However, unlike amber, copal is only one-hundred to three-million years old. Copal from Kenya and Colombia is frequently marketed as "amber."
There are several tests that can be performed to distinguish copal from true amber. Copal is softer than amber; it has a hardness of about 1.5 versus amber's 2.5 on the Moh's scale. Thus, copal can be scratched with a fingernail. Copal is generally brittle and sensitive to heat or sunlight. It is difficult to cut and polish, and will develop a crazed surface in a few years. Copal has a much lower melting point than amber, about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and is soluble in acetone. When subjected to short-wave ultraviolet light, copal does not fluoresce. Additionally, the insects in copal are recent -- those in amber are generally extinct.
When trying to distinguish real amber from a fake, many collectors frequently overlook perhaps the most important indicator of all . . .
Common Sense: Mr. Getler should have known better. If his 30 million year old lizard in amber were authentic, it should have carried a price between $10,000 and $40,000, depending upon its condition. In his article, Getler mentioned that he thought he had gotten it "for a steal." Well, there was a steal involved. Unfortunately, Mr. Getler was on the losing end. It has been said: If it seems too good to be true, then it generally is too good to be true. This homily applies especially to amber dealings. Even if the situation seems reasonable, the specimen still might be a fake. It is wise to be skeptical these days when purchasing amber. The best bet is to insist upon a return privilege from the seller.
Despite your best efforts, you still could wind up purchasing a fake. If that happens, rest assured you are in good company. Recently, the British Natural History Museum discovered that what it believed to be the oldest specimen of a particular species of bee in amber was, in reality, a fake. The specimen was made of genuine amber. However, someone had drilled a hole, inserted the bee, and refilled the specimen with melted amber. The specimen was actually less than 150 years old.
Copyright © 1994 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.
The preceding article was originally published in the October 1994 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).
Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in
whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted
provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and
the author's notice of copyright is retained.
Last updated: 18 September 2002