Friday, 2 September 2011

Amber - caution

The other day a woman approached Riley and said she was looking to replace an amber pendant she'd had when she was young. It had been very dear to her and had been lost. Might we have anything similar? Riley got out the bag of amber pendants we have before asking her to describe it. It had a seahorse in it, the woman explained.

'Ah', said Riley. Sadly he couldn't find a pendant that matched the one she lost. If seahorses were ever arboreal it was for a very short period in their evolutionary history. They just weren't cut out for climbing.

Fake amber isn't uncommon. Commercial amber is usually from one of three sources - the Baltic Sea, the Dominican Republic and the Chiapas Hills in Mexico. There are plenty of other places amber's found, but not in such quantities, and not of such quality. Amber is, of course, fossilised tree resin - in the case of the Dominican stuff, it's mostly from the hymenaea tree. In Baltic examples it's from pine or eucalyptus trees. I've seen insects 'planted' in reconstituted amber, and in plastic, and very often if it looks too good to be true, it possibly is... For something to become trapped in tree sap it has to be somewhere near a tree. If your prized piece of amber contains a seahorse, or a strawberry, or a digital watch, you should be suspicious.

There are ways to check for fakery, though. Ether or acetone (or paint thinner, or nail polish remover) will usually start to melt plastic but leave amber unharmed. Sticking a heated needle into the piece will give off a tell-tale smell. Amber gives off a pine sap smell (perhaps unsurprisingly) while plastic will give of the smell of burnt plastic. You knew that. Amber can be scratched by a coin, where most of the plastics used are a little harder. All of these are a little destructive. I'd expect were you to blow up pieces of plastic and amber with the same amount of gunpower, the fragments of plastic would fly further, but it's not really a test you'd want to put your amber through. Alternatively, you can putting your piece in some salt water. Amber should float. Or try a UV lamp - amber fluoresces as shown in this video.

Lastly, some sell copal as amber. This may simply through ignorance, however, and isn't really on the same level of deceit as bugs in plastic, if it can be called deceit at all. Copal is basically young amber - still resin from trees - and can be found containing insects in Madagascar, Bolivia, Colombia and a few other sites. These places produce material ranging in age from around 100,000 to 500,000 years old, where most amber is 25 million years old and more. Copal isn't as hard as amber, so doesn't work as well for jewellery. It tends to be paler in colour, too.

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