How to tell Real Amber vs Fake Amber Jewelry and Everything In Between

This is a home guide for distinguishing real amber from fake amber. We welcome your comments!

The warm glow and smooth feel of natural amber has captivated humanity for thousands of years. This unique gem falls within the class of jewelry materials known as “organics” because it originates from the living world. Like Coral, Pearls, Jet, Ebony and Ivory, it is the byproduct of a living thing and served a unique purpose in the ecosystem long before it was recognized for its aesthetic value by human beings.

Amber Earrings Top

Vintage Sterling Silver & Amber Earrings from our ebay store

Amber is a prized material for jewelry and other accessories. Unfortunately, there are dozens of tricky substitutes for amber that are often mistaken for the real thing. The purpose of this article is to help the casual observer distinguish between fakes and real amber.

Before delving into the specifics, it is important to have an understanding of the nature and origin of natural amber. All amber began as resin oozing from the exterior of an ancient (at least 2 Million years ago) tree (unlike sugar bearing sap, resin originates from the exterior of tree and serves a variety of protective purposes). You can see modern tree resin on most pine trees at points wear a lost limb or other injury caused the tree to exude resin.

The resin from these ancient trees was transported by nature into lakes, swamps and marine environments where it underwent a polymerization process known as “amberization”. The chemical make-up of the resin was actually changed during this process and gives amber the unique qualities that make it suitable for use in jewelry. Amberization, under most conditions, requires at least 2 Million years. If the Amberization process is interrupted before sufficient time has passed, the result is a not fully polymerized material known as Copal.

With that introduction to amber in mind, we can proceed to field observations and analysis that will help distinguish between amber and its substitutes.

There are 4 general things that can be mistaken for Amber: 1) modern plastics / resins; 2) vintage plastics and pre-plastics; 3) glass and silicon based minerals (e.g. Carnelian); and 4) other tree resins. Through basic observation and some limited home-testing, you can confidently distinguish amber from these substitutes. With time and practice, testing becomes less necessary.


STEP ONE: Look at it 

Amber ranges in transparency from perfectly clear to almost entirely opaque and in color from white to black.  Common colors on the transparent side include light yellow, dark yellow, orangish yellow, red, reddish brown and milky. Review the images below of different shades of Amber in jewelry.

Beads Look At It

Vintage Sterling Silver & Amber Lavaliere from our ebay store

The warm golden-yellow color of these natural amber beads is probably the most commonly encountered color for transparent amber. The small inclusions and irregularities are a tell-tale sign that you are likely looking at real amber.

Highlight Amber Bead

The two rings below feature darker, but still transparent/translucent amber. The dark natural grennish-brown specimen is set in an antique Russian ring. The reddish-brown example is set in a vintage American ring.

Dark Brown Baltic Amber Ring Look At It

Red Amber Ring Look At It

Common colors on the opaque side include white, egg yolk, red, butter scotch, brown and near-black. Below are some examples of opaque / barely translucent amber set in jewelry.

Egg Yolk Amber Ring Look At It

Very Fine Egg Yolk Amber in Sterling Silver (our ebay store)

Butterscotch Amber Pendant Look At It

Common Quality Butterscotch Amber in Sterling Silver (our ebay store)

Egg Yolk Amber Earrings Look At It

Fine Orange Egg Yolk Amber in 12K Gold Filled (our ebay store)

Stirated Butterscotch Amber Stud Earrings

Baltic Striated Butterscotch Amber in Sterling Silver (our ebay store)

Much less common natural colors include anything in the blue-green spectrum. It is common however, to see yellow amber that that has been enhanced to give it a green or blue color. The earrings below have a lovely green color. They are natural amber earrings, but their true color is yellow. If you examine the photo of the back of the earrings you will note a black plastic coating. This coating is used to give these earrings their green color.

Green Amber Earrings Look At It Green Amber Earrings Back Look At It

STEP TWO. Feel It

Amber is very lightweight and warm to the touch.  These characteristics make it fairly easy to distinguish from glassy materials that sometimes masquerade as Amber including glass, carnelian and certain agates. If the weight and coolness-to-touch of these glassy materials doesn’t quickly distinguish them, a light tap to your front tooth will do the trick. Glass and stones have an unmistakable hard rattle against a tooth whereas amber has just a very light plastic tap. Below are photos of two materials sometimes mistaken for amber.

Art Deco Sterling Silver Amber Glass Brooch

Art Deco Sterling Silver Amber Glass Brooch

Carnelian Ring Look At It

Sterling Silver & Carnelian Ring

STEP THREE:  Heat It and Smell It

We are proponents of heat testing amber. Some collectors and jewelers view this method of testing as too destructive to be beneficial. We, however, believe that it is one of the most reliable home-methods to distinguish amber from modern and early plastics and that it can be performed in a manner that avoids destroying the test subject.

When heated, amber produces a sooty, but pleasant, slightly sweet, pine-tree smell. We do not recommend this method for distinguishing amber from copal because copal also produces a natural resinous smell when heated — it smells different than amber (sweeter and more like frankencense), but you need some experience to tell the difference.

In order to heat the amber safely, without destroying it, we recommend using two very thin strands of copper wire twisted together into a “probe”. These wires can be harvested from the cord of an old cell phone charger or pretty much any other adapter cord. The wires should be a little thicker than a human hair. You will want to hold the wires with a pair of pliers (or create a small wooden handle for your probe). This is because copper is a very good conductor of heat and it will burn your hand if you just hold the probe. As an alternative to the probe, you can use a very thin sewing needle.

The concept is simple. You want to heat the probe until its glowing red and then quickly touch it to an inconspicuous spot on the test subject. We find the best spots to be:

  1. the hole on a bead
  2. for open set pieces, the back of the piece where it meets the bezel
  3. for closed set pieces (e.g. the small tear drop shaped butterscotch amber studs above) the very edge where the amber meets the bezel. In this instance, it is important to perform the test on a downward angle so that you are effectively testing between the amber and the bezel at the seam where they meet.

Before attempting the test, you should prepare a work surface. A towel placed on a counter will work well. You should observe regular lab safety protocol.

First identify the test location. You will only have a second or two from when the probe is heated until you touch it to the test subject so you need to have your heat source ready and nearby. Heat the probe until it is glowing red and then immediately touch it to the test subject. You do not want to drive it into piece — rather you want to just gently touch it to the piece.

Natural amber will often release a TINY puff of smoke. More importantly, it will release a fragrant smell that has a natural pinewood-like scent. Man-made materials will respond very differently. There will be either no smell (Bakelite and similar substances) or a foul petro chemical smell.

STEP FOUR: Distinguish Amber from Copal

As discussed above, copal is tree resin that is too young to be amber. It is, in our opinion, the most difficult substance to distinguish from true amber. Before delving into this subject, it is important to consider that many people do not care if their jewelry is made from Amber or Copal. Visually, they are almost indistinguishable. Copal is cheaper and often has spectacular plant and insect inclusions. It is 100% natural and usually tens of thousands of years old. It is not as durable as amber, but makes a wonderful substitute for the cost conscious consumer.

Copal Beads

Natural Copal Beads On A Simple Beading Cord

We advocate three types of testing for copal: UV Light; Acetone; and Friction.

The Friction test is simple. Rub the piece briskly back and forth across a piece of dry cloth. Copal will usually become SLIGHTLY tacky to the touch as a result of the heat created during the rubbing process. Amber will remain smooth and in dry conditions will become slightly electrostatic (you can test this by trying to attract thin paper confetti).

The UV Test is simple, but requires that you to own or have access to a short wave UV lamp. Most species of amber of fluoresce a light shade of blue or green under UV light. Copal, unless strangely included, will not fluoresce. In a dark room (wear appropriate eye protection) expose the sample to UV Light and observe whether it fluoresces.

The acetone test is best reserved for raw specimens. It often leaves discoloration on the surface of the sample which will then need to be polished out. Acetone is a strong solvent which will dissolve copal, but not amber. It can be purchased at any beauty supply store. In a pinch, you can use an acetone based nail polish remover. Simple apply a drop of acetone to the surface of the test subject and then let it evaporate. Copal will usually become slightly tacky. Amber will have no response. If you are suspicious of your results, apply another drop in the same location and repeat the test. Some copal requires two applications to begin to dissolve. Importantly, some amber, especially collector’s specimens, is treated with a protective coating – if you suspect this is the case with your piece, do not apply the acetone and will almost certainly dissolve the coating.

NOTE ON OTHER TESTING METHODS

There are a bevy of additional tests that can be performed to distinguish amber from other substances. We mention some of them here for the purposes of completeness. However, we find them to be unhelpful because they either require special equipment or would not work for amber set in jewelry.

  1. Hardness testing. Amber is very soft and most species fall at a 2 on the Moh’s hardness scale. With a hardness kit, you can distinguish amber from harder substitutes. However, many man-mad plastics have a similar softness and thus this test, alone, is not especially reliable.
  2. Specific Gravity. Specific Gravity testing is extremely accurate. However, it requires the amber specimen to be removed from whatever jewelry it is set in. Therefore we do not find this type of testing to be particularly useful.
  3. Refractive Index. This test can be accurate, but requires a refractometer. Most of the amber we’ve encountered hits between a 1.53 and 1.55.
  4. “Tasting”. Our mother swears she can taste the difference between amber and plastic. We’re not sure on this one!
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12 Responses to How to tell Real Amber vs Fake Amber Jewelry and Everything In Between

  1. LENI SHEA says:

    I PURCHASED A DARKER RED BUDDHJA FIGURINE ABOUT 7 YEARS AGO AT A FLEA MARKET . IN FLORIDA . HE IS 12″ TALL WAIGHS 4.LB A LARGE FIGURINE . HAND CARVED . THERE ARE NO BUGS INSIDE . BUT A LOT OF DEBRIS. LEAVES MOSS LIKE PIECES SOME SMALL WHITE PIECES AND OTHERS . MOSTLY ON THE BOTTOM LIGHTER TO THE TOP . WHEN I HOLD HIM AGAINST THE SUNLIGHT HE LOOKS LIKE FIRE INSIDE . THERE ARE LIGHTER COLORS LIKE ORANGE . I TRIED EVERY TEST . I READ UP ON . ACETONE AT FIRST. I POORED OVER THE BOTTOM . IT JUST LAYED THERE TILL I WIPED IT OF .. NO DAMAGE TO THE PIECE . THEN I TRIED NAIL POLISH . AGAIN . NO Damage to the piece . then i tried the hot needle . it did not penetrate the piece. THEN I GOT 2 WOOD MATCHES THE LONG ONCES AND BURNED THE PIECE ON THE BOTTOM 2 TIMES . NO DAMAGE TO THE PIECE .. THEN I TOOK A MATCH AND BURNED A THINNER PIECE NEAR THE HAND HIGHER UP. IT BURNED THE AMBER UP UP… NO STICKYNES OR MELTING . AGAIN .NO DAMAGE TO THE PIECE , I CANTTRY THE WATER THING . HE WONT FLOAT IN A POT OF SALT WATER . HE WAIGHS 4 LB . THIS IS LIKE A JOKE WITH THIS PIECE . BUT HE PASSED EVERY TEST THERE IS . I KNEW WHEN I GOT HIM JUST BY LOOKING AT HIM THIS REAL AUTHENTIC AMBER . ALSO WHERE THE CARVER DIDENT GET IN TO CRAVISES . IT IS STILL THE RAW AMBER LIKE SAND PAPER . AND THE COLOR IS LIKE A TANISH LIGHT BROWN . . I LIKE TO GET HIM EVALUATED . CAN YOU TELL ME WHERE I CAN GET THAT DONE . . THANK YOU LENI SHE LUCKYS289@AOL.COM

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi Leni and thanks for reading our blog. If it is a natural carved amber 4lb figurine then it is a valuable piece so I would be hesitant to expose it to more testing. That said, a red hot pin WILL penetrate natural amber. A red hot pin will not penetrate certain hard plastics such as bakelite. What city is nearest to you? I may be able to recommend someone. You can also always send a photo to Doyles Auction House in NYC. Thanks again and let me know if I can be of further assistance. It sounds like a really nice piece!

      • leni shea says:

        thank you for your reply . i had the piece tested on the 12-18-2014 here in cape coral florida 3326 del prado . he took about 1 hour to test the piece . with equipment i dont have . also he stuck smething hot in to the bottom . and told me to smell it . it smelled like a pine tree . pine . i also said like a xmas tree . a very pleasant scent . i could not have tested on my own . the fee was $ 15.00 but i made it $ 30. 00 i was so happy . that i was right it is 100% amber . he wrote on the sales slip ID AMBER BUDDHA if i wanted a form for ins,, it would cost $ 100 .00 then he would have to write down everything . the waight the hight .and everything else . i told him i dont need that .but if i do , i gladly get it . now i like to know about the value . an honest value . i know since this piece is authenticated to be true amber . there are people around trying to get this piece . by making up some kind of storys . . no story can be made up about this piece. it is what it is authentic amber .i am very happy to show it around . i also found out there are a couple of 1″ long flys with little round transparent wings . the are not around anymore .i found out about this when his wife whispered something very close to his head . the also thaught i was selling it . i have no intention . and told him .i want to get in contact with the antique road show . if the ever come to cape coral florida . i guess i was at the right time at the right place when i purchased him . something told me he was real amber . but i am no gemologist . or expert. but i learned . please let me know . thank you so much . please reply with my email . luckys289@aol.com thank you again

  2. John Carlson says:

    My aunt left me a large quantity of amber beads from her travels in the middle east, and also some old Tibetan amber.They are mostly opaque and vary in their colors. It appears antique, irregular, and a natural substance, but I’m not sure if might be copal? From my research, copal and amber overlap quite a bit in their specific gravity, so the float test seems too inaccurate. My fingernail won’t scratch them. They mostly do generate static that picks up bits of hair or paper, some more and others less. Will copal pass the static test? I’m hesitant to do a more destructive test, since the pieces are old and beautiful.

    Thank you,
    John

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi and thanks for your question. Based on the information you provided, I would assume that the pieces are either natural amber. In a very dry environment, copal will generate and store static – but based on your description of the pieces, I wold very much doubt they are copal. Antique natural amber pieces can have a great value. I would have them professionally evaluated. I have in my collection several bedouin bridal pieces that are crafted from low grade silver (500 or so) and amber as well as resin. The resin is generally a warmer more uniform color than the amber. A high heat test (e.g. hot probe) is conclusive as between resin/non-resin, but you if you have a good nose, you can rub it briskly against a piece of soft cloth until warm and then immediately push it into your nose. Not a gentle sniff mind you — you have to basically shove it up against your nostril and inhale.

      • leni shea says:

        the piece i have is real amber 100$ id.. jeff hicks gemologist here in cape coral florida . as i emailed before. now i canm test amber myself . and can tell with 100% accuracy if the piece of amber is.. real amber .. or not .. i learned a lot .yes mr. hicks stuck something in to the bottom of the piece . and then told me to smell it and tell him what it smells like . i held my nose to the spot . and it was a very pleasant smell . like pine tree . pine needles. i told him like a pine xmes tree. . i never smelled before. as mr. hicks ask me to get this piece insured . the cost for the form to fill out $ 100.00 and everything every detail about this piece he has to write down . the woman stepped in and stopped him telling him i do not need to get it insured , i just stood there dident know what to say . she was sitting in front of her computer . and had many buddha pictures on there . she showed one to me . i was in front of the counter. she told me this was amber and he was 12″ tall . i told her he sure looks ugly . well she said he sold for $ 400.00 i give you $ 500.00 for yours . .she told me he was called the traveling buddha . i told her politly . he is traveling right back home with me . and i left . even forgot to get my id.. paper . i went back the next day and got it . she was not there . when i got home i looked up all the buddhas from all over the world . i found the one she showed to me .he was metal.. no wonder he did not look right to me . he was 4″ tall and sold for $ 16.00 and my buddha he is not called the traveling buddha ,there is no buddha that even looks a little like mine . or has the piece on his right shoulder , not one of them . this piece i have most be of great value . i do want to get him insured . thank you so much for your reply .i cant go back to where i got him authenticated . i wrote 3 more gemologists down from here in cape coral . and my friend and i will see those coming saturday . i watched the other evening the pawn stars , a man brought in a very small piece of amber about 4″ wide 2″ high and about 2″ deep . with a scorpion inside . the worker called another worker over to look at that piece . he looked at it and said to the man . if this is real this piece would be $ 50.000.00 . the send the piece to a gemologist . the form came back . it read plastic . . the owner said to the man .who owned that piece . if this would have been real . i gladly would give you $ 20.000.00 for it . that showed to me more again the value of my buddha . i emailed to different auction houses . the want for me to take more photos . .i will do that . and see more gemologists . i really dont have to . but i guess if i get him insured the retest him . and that is fine with me . i told mr hicks just to poor it on the piece not to be afraid . because i tested him before and i just poured the acid all over the bottom . what ever he was testing with .. but he did not . he used a swab . i know there was something on the bottom and on the top what must be important . i watched her . she wispered something near his head i could not hear . there are things in there the do not exist anymore . she knew he was real amber when i first walked in with him . right away she told me he was hand carved . like i wrote . now i have to be very careful , my thoughts are getting closer and closer to the real value of this piece , thank.s again . i will let you know . leni shea luckys289@aol.com

      • hunterridge says:

        thanks leni shea for the update! It’s all very exciting.

  3. Benjamin says:

    Hello hunterridge,

    Would you please to see if my Buffalo Red Amber statue is real..? I have some photo, but could not upload here, so I create new blog for the pictures at http://buffaloredamber.blogspot.com

    Thank you

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi and thanks for reading our blog. It is difficult to tell from photos alone whether a piece is authentic. I do have one concern though – a piece of red amber this large and o this color and clarity would be rare and quite valuable. The detail work on the horns and face is well done, but it does not appear to be the type of masterwork one would expect on piece this large.

  4. Lexy Rodgers says:

    i been emailing you for the longest time about the red amber standing buddha figurine . 12″ tall and his waight 4 lb . he is guaranteed 100% amber has been id.amber buddha . i like to sell him . how do i go about it . i know he is very valuable . i would not waste your time or mine . to write something that is not true . is there anything more that i can do ? let me know .. thank you lexy rodgers luckys289@aol.com it looks like when you have such rare find as this one 4 lb of pure red amber people just cant believe it . i stake my life on it . it is pure true amber . i emailed to you before mr. hicks gemologist tested this piece . i was right there .. and . when i tested him before and pured all that acetone over the bottom . i knew then he was pure amber .i still pured acetone all over the bottom .. there is no damage to this pice . nothing shint as before i just wipe him of thats all .. i believe pure amber can be tested over and over . that proves the real amber . let me know thank you ..

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi Again! I think the best bet on this piece is to bring it to a well established auction house for selling purposes. A good auction house will be able to market it appropriately. Most of the large houses put together collections annually and with the recent rise of the East, Asian Antiquities auctions are more common than ever. Try emailing the asian antiquities at Bonhams, Christies and Sotheby’s to see if you can gauge their interest.

  5. Louise says:

    Hi
    Thank You, for all the brilliant info on your site.
    I’m wondering, if Amber can be tested with ultra violet light, why do any of the other more intrusive/difficult tests on it ?
    Thanks

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