Before starting your amber test it’s important to have a good look at the amber. This should already give you a good impression of what you’re holding. Amber is a natural product and doesn’t come perfectly. You can always find some small flaws or imperfections like cracks or small air bubbles. If you see a lot of larger air bubbles it is most likely fake. Furthermore is amber really light due to the low density. A 20 gram piece is already quite large. If the piece is lighter then you might expect by the size that is already a good sign. Once you had a good look and the piece doesn’t weight to much you can start testing.
The most effective method is the ‘smell’ test. Amber has a specific scent of pine trees that is not easy to recreate. Copal forgeries will give a sweeter scent of resin. After heating adulterations of plastic will smell like burned plastic. You can perform smell tests in the following way:
The rub test
It’s best to do this test in the palm of your hand. It is possible to heat amber by rubbing until it spreads the scent of pines. However, you do need firm hands for this and it is quite difficult to rub polished amber to the right temperature. It is however the best way without damaging your amber.
The hot needle test
This is probably the most effective way to determine authenticity. Heat the point of a needle and puncture it in the amber (preferably in an existing hole or drilled hole) The smell of pines is unmistakable. Please note that this is not the pure air you are used to from conifers. It is more a mix with the burned smell of other materials (needle, dust, dirt), but clearly distinguishable from burned plastic. The hot needle will also make some cracks in the amber due to the heat. Plastic will not show any cracks.
The Saltwater test
Amber (but also copal) floats on salt water. This is also the reason that so many pieces are washed ashore. Start by putting 7 or 8 tablespoons of salt in 300 millilitres of water. Then stir until you dissolved all the salt. If the amber sinks, you’re dealing with a forgery. Please note that copal and polystyrene also remain floating in this test, but you can rule out the rest! Please note that this will not work on amber jewellery with metal parts on it.
You can be electrically charge amber by rubbing it with a cloth. A good test is to rub it with wool or silk for about 60 seconds. After that you can look if it’s able to pick up hairs or little pieces of paper. If so you successfully charged the amber piece and you can rule out Copal. Also Copal will get a bit sticky after being rubbed and will not charge electrically.
Infrared spectroscopy is the most effective scientific way for authentication. Baltic amber is characterized by its own IR spectrum called “Baltic amber shoulder”. This is however a destructive method and must be performed in a laboratory.
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