How To Test Amber

This page takes you through the process of the proper testing of a product to determine if it is Baltic Amber.

It is written to ensure that you get proper results by giving you information about how to run a proper test.

Testing and Control

In any test situation, you need a control. The control gives you test results of a known product. You then compare the test results of your unknown product against the control.

To properly run amber tests, you should have on hand a control – a piece of amber, that you know is Baltic Amber, as a test stone. And you should test it in parallel with testing your unknown product. Read about and get a test stone here.

Plastic, a resin, should also be used as a control for some of the tests. You should also have that on hand.

Some plastics exhibit characteristics similar to Amber. So, one must be very careful in the testing process.

If you do not follow these instructions EXACTLY, you are liable to get false results. That is a very common happenstance.

“How Can You Tell The Difference Between Baltic Amber And Its Forgeries?”

Most people can’t. Many experts can’t always do it. You probably can’t.

One of the world’s foremost experts on amber gave her comments in an interview.

Excerpt Of Interview With Ewa Wagner- Wysiecka PhD from the Technical University of Gdansk (Amber Market News 2008)

Question – “How can you tell the difference between Baltic amber and its forgeries?”

EWW: “There are many methods which enable a seasoned expert to tell Baltic amber from its imitations. Sometimes a keen and experienced eye is enough, but sometimes this can unfortunately be difficult because of the specific working techniques used. Baltic amber, however, has a characteristic scent which is the key to its initial and most simple identification method, for instance by applying the tip of a hot needle and checking the scent that the substance emanates. It is easy to tell between the scent of succinite and the smell of synthetic resins. In order to identify succinite, you can also take advantage of its uncommonly low solubility in organic solvents (this is a comparatively easy way to tell succinite from copal). However, the most reliable results can be obtained using laboratory methods. The simplest and most often used method is Infrared Spectroscopy (IRS). On the basis of the results of such measurements it is possible not only to identify Baltic amber, but also other natural and synthetic resins.”

Question – “Are these methods invasive?”

EWW: “In the case of the hot needle test or the test using solvents, it is quite easy to imagine the degree to which the sample would be damaged. In the case of modern IR spectrometers, the sample necessary for a single analysis is generally relatively small. However, the number of analysis which we have to make and the method of sampling vary in each case. In every case, however, we are talking about milligrams, so the samples are small.”

Testing Amber Is A Destructive Process

To properly test amber, you must damage the specimen.

You may burn a hole in the amber with a pin, you may scrape it to check if it curls or chips, you may take a sample for IRS testing, you may heat it to the point that it changes color, you may fracture it, you may expose it to organic solvents.

If you want a definitive result, you must do one of the above. And your amber will be damaged.

Authors Note

Due to the many similarities between amber’s physical and optical characteristics with plastics and other imitations, the two main tests that one can do at home to perhaps distinguish real amber from an imitation are the hot pin test and painting with ether or acetone.

But the only way to be absolutely sure is to get an IRS test run by the international Amber Association Gdansk, Poland.
IRS Testing

If you are dealing with high-value products, the Amber Laboratory at the University of Gdansk which, under contract with the International Amber Association, will test amber for you. They use IRS testing. This is the ultimate test. And it is recommended that you have any product that is high-value tested by this organization rather than so-called experts.

Please note, that regardless of the experience level of the people at the International Amber Association, and the equipment used, they openly state that amber fraud technology is advancing so quickly that even they cannot always determine the exact nature of the sample. And if you send something to them to be tested, if they cannot determine exactly what the product is, they will return it telling you that they cannot give you a valid result. Read about this and more in the Amber Buyer’s Guide.

If you decide to use a local expert to test your amber, if that expert does not use IRS to do the test, you may be doing little more than wasting your money.

The Hot Pin Test

This is a primary test. An amber expert generally uses this as a go no go test. It is not determinative but gives a very good indication.
Be sure to do this test along with your control so that you are sure that what you smell is amber scent and not something else.

Watch this video. Hot Pin Test

Insert a hot pin into your test stone. You will get a fleeting scent of amber.

A pin is defined as a fine tipped soldering iron, a piece of wire about 1 mm in diameter or any other metal piece about 1 mm diameter.

Insert a hot pin into your amber. Compare that scent to that of your test stone.

Do it a few times to be sure.

The pin has to be large enough to cause enough smoke to be generated. Likewise, you have to insert the pin deep enough to get the smoke you need.

Amber and Copal will smell the same under the hot pin test.

Acetone Or Ether

Amber is resistant to ether and acetone.

Copal will get sticky.

Most plastics, but not all synthetics used for forgeries, will get sticky.

Paint part of your amber with ether or acetone.

Wait a couple minutes. Check the painted surface. Sticky – not amber. Not sticky – could be amber.

The Float Test

This is a favorite of home testers and is one that is very often improperly run.

You can see this done on video at
Amber Salinity Test

The specific gravity of amber varies from about 1.05 to 1.09. The amount of bubbles in the amber has a great deal to do with this.

Amber will float on cold seawater. Or in a glass of water saturated with salt. Some plastics will also float under the same conditions.

Amber floats on salt water. BUT! Not just any salt water. You have to have the proper salt density and water temperature.

Professionals who gather amber on the Baltic Coast are most successful in the winter when water temperature is 4 degrees Centigrade or lower.

Use 1 part salt to one part cold water. Some people recommend at least 7 teaspoons of salt to a small glass of water.

Add your test stone to the water. Check that it floats. Add salt until it floats.

Then add your amber. If it does not float, add more salt and chill the water.

Some plastics won’t float. Others will.

Remember that your necklace or other product may have silver, a plastic clasp, string, or other added items. These along with your amber will not float.

To properly run the float test, you must be trying to float only amber and not amber with clasps, etc.. That means you should take a piece of amber off your jewelry.

If your sample floats, what does it tell you?

It tells you it is something that floats. It does not tell you that it is Baltic Amber.

A great waste of time this one is.

Visual Examination Of A Picture On The Internet

This is an exercise in futility. In today’s world of Photoshop you cannot rely on what you see. Additionally, even if the picture is a fair rendition of the product, a product will display differently on each computer or other display device depending on light, graphics cards, data transmission and other variables.

Visual Examination

Many people evaluate amber by looking at it. It is not possible to accurately determine the nature of amber by looking at it with a light or looking at a picture or looking at it in your hand.

Experienced ambermen who manufacture amber beads every day will tell you that they cannot distinguish with 100% accuracy a bead carved from one nugget of amber from a bead press formed from one, and sometimes more, nugget of amber. Even if the beads were made in their own shop!

The Smell Test

Baltic Amber in its natural state is scentless. It does not “smell’.

You must heat the amber somehow for it to emit a detectable scent.

To check this, smell your test stone.

Smell your amber and compare.

Do it a few times to be sure.

The Rub Test

If you rub amber in your hand to the point that it is hot, you will get a pleasant smell. BUT! The scent is faint, and many people do not smell it. You really have to know what you are looking for to be able to detect it.

Rub your test stone to learn the smell.

Rub your amber and compare.

Do it a few times to be sure.

As a note, it is interesting to watch amber buyers go through the rub charade. They give a few rubs and a sniff like they know what they are looking for. It takes definite rubbing to warm the amber. Not a couple rubs. A couple rubs are enough to show people you know something should happen, but not enough for anything to happen.

This test is really a waste of time.

The Heat Test

If you take a small piece of amber, hold it in tweezers, and heat it slowly over your gas stove or another flame, you will get a faint, somewhat pleasant smell. But the smell can be so faint that unless one knows what one is looking for, one is liable to miss it.

But that will be transitory, and you will start to get an acrid smell as the amber gets hotter.

There is some commentary that slowly heated amber smells somewhat like the incense one smells in church. I must place emphasis on the word slowly.

If you take the same piece of amber that you heated slowly and continue to heat it, it will give off an acrid smoke. It smells horrible.
The reason is simple. Amber contains acid – succinic acid. As you get the amber hot you are burning it and it is giving off acid smoke. And it is not pleasant.

Now while you are heating your amber, put some in a metal plate over fire. As it gets hot, it will turn cherry color. (Cherry colored amber is not natural. Amber makers make cherry colored amber by heating common amber.)

As you continue to heat it, it will bubble and turn to an ash. The smell will not be pleasant. It’s actually overpowering as the acid smoke permeates the room.

The Curl Test

It is said that if you scrape amber with a needle it will not come off in curls but will come off in small chips.

This test is often run on baby teething necklaces. But people are very tentative in scraping the amber because they don’t want to ruin the teething necklace.

Unfortunately, proper testing of amber is a destructive process. If you do not dig in with the needle or hobby knife it will not come off in small chips.

So, if you are afraid of having a scratch in your amber, don’t run this test.

If you are going to run the test, practice on your test stone so you learn what should happen.

The Whack Test

Rather than a curl test, take a piece of the amber and a piece of plastic and put them on something hard. And whack each with a hammer. Give them a good solid whack!

The amber will shatter. They hammer will bounce off the plastic.

Why would anyone ever do this?

If you bought a baby teething necklace and you are convinced that it is either fake or false amber, then of course it is worthless to you. Take the time to take off at least one bead and give it a whack. Or just hit the necklace and see what happens. No problem, you were convinced that it was worthless. But after you hit it, you may find it was not worthless.

Your best approach, is to contact your supplier and discuss the problem with the supplier.

We emphasize strongly, that for high value items that you want to verify as being made from Baltic Amber, you should get a test run through the International Amber Association.

If you are going to buy a high-value item, then depend on the supplier’s reputation or ask the supplier to have the test run for you, at your cost of course, and only take delivery with a certified test.

For low value items, you will be highly dependent on the honesty of your supplier.

End Notes

Now we know that you are likely to want to run these tests for yourself. By all means, go for it. If you have any problems in running a test or get test results that indicate your amber many not be Baltic Amber, you are invited to contact us.

Remember, tests run at home are helpful and indicative, but not determinative.

Read the Amber Buyer’s Guide for more information.

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