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Identifying True Amber (Succinite)


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Identifying True Amber (Succinite)

Since the screening of ‘Jurassic Park’ interest in the mineral
amber has grown significantly. Unfortunately so has the quantity
of fake amber coming on to the market. Some of these pieces have
insect inclusions skilfully placed in the body of the matrix.

The British Natural History Museum recently discovered that a
bee preserved in amber thought to be one of the oldest known
examples of this particular species was in fact a fake and
probably no more than 150 years old. (More of this bee later).
Evidence of this nature, that even the best can be fooled should
alert all collectors to the possibility of being misled or simply
cheated.

In some case copal, which is tree resin which has not yet fully
fossilised to amber and may be anything up 3-4 million years old
is described as true amber. Debate still rages in the UK about
certain Kenyan deposits as to whether they should be called copal
or amber and I have heard of similar arguments concerning
deposits found in South America. There are a number of simple
tests that can be carried out on amber to check its authenticity.
I have listed here all the basic methods I have come across. More
sophisticated and complex tests are possible but they require
access to laboratory equipment. These more complex tests include
Refraction Index, Precise Specific Gravity and Melting Point.
When examining a specimen you should try at least 3 of the
following methods detailed here. If the item in question fails
any one of the tests, it could well mean the piece is not true
amber.

(Test 1) HARDNESS.

Amber has hardness on Moh’s scale in the region of 2 - 3. Using
appropriate scratch sticks it should be reasonably
straightforward to test the sample under question.

(Test 2) HOT NEEDLE.

Heat a needlepoint in a flame until glowing red and then push
the point into the sample for testing. With copal the needle
melts the material quicker than amber and omits a light fragrant
odour. Amber when tested does not melt as quickly as the copal
and omits sooty fumes.

(Test 3) SOLUBILITY.

Copal will dissolve in acetone. This test can be done by
dispensing the acetone from an eyedropper onto a clean surface of
the test specimen. Place one drop on the surface of the test
piece and allow to evaporate, then place a second drop on the
same area. Copal will become tacky; amber will remain unaffected
by contact with acetone.

(Test 4) UV

Copal under a short-wave UV light shows hardly any colour
change. Amber fluoresces a pale shade of blue.

(Test 5) FRICTION

Rub the specimen vigorously on a soft cloth. True amber may omit
a faint resinous fragrance but copal may actual begin to soften
and the surface become sticky. Amber will also become heavily
charged with static electricity and will easily pick up small
pieces of loose paper.

(Test 6) TASTE

An antique trader who specialised in amber beads introduced this
test to me. She explained that one of the most reliable tests she
used was to taste the amber specimen after washing it in mild
soapy water and then plain water. Whilst she could make no
distinction between copal and amber, she could easily identify
plastics and other common substitutes because of their unpleasant
or chemical taste. Amber has hardly any taste at all. As a method
for identification I have not seen this procedure recorded
elsewhere. I can vouch for its effectiveness as a non-destructive
method of differentiating between amber and certain other
substances often misleadingly labelled amber.

(TEST 7) FLOTATION (Specific Gravity)

Mix 23gms of standard table salt with 200ml of luke warm water.
Stir until completely dissolved. Amber should float in such a
mixture and some copals together with various plastics sink.

(TEST 8) INCLUSIONS

Infrequently amber contains Flora or Fauna inclusions. Correctly
identifying the trapped Insect or plant should be an excellent
indicator of a piece’s authenticity. Most inclusions from
ancient amber are of species that are now extinct or
significantly changed.

(TEST 9) POLARISED LIGHT

Place the suspect piece of ‘amber’ between two sheets of
polarising glass or plastic. (Kokin Filter Systems who sell lens
accessories for cameras sell such products). Rotate one of the
polarising lenses slowly through 360 degrees. In the body of the
amber a display of rainbow colours should cycle through the
transparent parts of the material. This is due to interference
patterns being induced in the polarised light because of the
internal strains and stresses within the amber itself. My general
experience with this method is that genuine amber and copal
always show these colour changes, where as some acrylics,
polymers and certain plastic do not. Amber, which has been
drilled and then later filled with a contemporary inclusion and
resin also, reveals its self via the clear disruption of the
colour display. Essentially; an amber piece which does not show
interference patterns is unlikely to be true amber. Anyone
wishing to find out more about amber in general or these test
methods specifically would do well to consult one of three books
currently available on amber, they are:

  • Life In Amber.[PARA]
  • George O. Poinar, Jr.[PARA]
  • Stanford University Press.[PARA]
  • ISBN: 0-8047-2001-0.
  • Amber - The Golden Gem of the Ages.[PARA]
  • Patty C. Rice.[PARA]
  • The Kosciuszko Foundation, Inc.[PARA]
  • ISBN: 0-917-00720-5.
  • Amber - Window to the Past.[PARA]
  • David Grimaldi.[PARA]
  • Harry N Abrams.[PARA]
  • ISBN: 0-8109-1966-4.[PARA]

Now back to the bee I mentioned earlier. I am afraid that only the
eighth and ninth tests would have identified this particular fake.
The item consisted of a block of true amber into which had been
drilled a hole large enough to receive the dead bee. Resin, which
had been melted, was then poured back over the insect, encasing it
in an apparently genuine amber prison.

Garry Platt MEd. MIPD. FISM.
Senior Consultant
CMTC Management Centre
Woodland Grange
Old Milverton Lane
Royal Leamington Spa
Warwickshire E Mail: @Garry_Platt
CV32 6RN Tel No: (UK) 01926 336621
United Kingdom Fax No: (UK) 01926 450648