Dear Viking Answer Lady:
I know that the Vikings wore amber, and that it was sacred to
I like it myself, and am very envious of those people I see walking
wearing enough amber to choke a horse! My question to you is this:
is expensive... I was quoted something like a dollar per gram! How do
I know that I'm getting real amber? I've heard that there's a lot of
different imitations of amber out there and that some dealers will try to
swindle a naif like me. Can you give me some rules of thumb that I can pass
along to those folks who will be shopping for me this Yuletide? (Or just for
me---I may buy myself a Yule gift this year to make sure that I get some of
the amber that I've been coveting!). Please, Viking Answer Lady, help me out!
(signed) Necklace Envy
do not despair! Yes, it is true that there are many imitations
amber on the market (imitations have been attempted since at least the
time of the ancient Egyptians), but the Viking Answer Lady believes that
imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The demand for amber over the
ages is a testament to the lasting beauty and mystic lure that the gem known
as Freyja's Tears exerts upon many. Since amber is so highly prized, it is
natural, albeit unfortunate, that unscrupulous traders will attempt to pass
off less valuable substances as the true Gold of the North.
There are several related fossilized resins and some "recent resins"
which are commonly called amber. The Queen of the Ambers comes from the
Baltic. Baltic amber is a fossilized resin, deposited as sap oozing from
now-extinct resinous trees as much as 50 million years ago in the Eocene
epoch of the Tertiary period of the Cenozoic era, and laid down in deposits
through what is now the coast of the Baltic Sea as well as parts of Russia.
Next most prized is Dominican Amber, .which is a fossilized resin deposited
from now-extinct resinous forests in what are now the Dominican Islands
approximately 10 to 25 million years ago in the Miocene epoch of the
Tertiary period of the Cenozoic era. More recent, but still valuable are
"young amber" deposits laid down by deciduous trees in what is now Poland,
from 10,000 to 1 million years ago in the Pleistocene epoch of the
Quaternary Period of the Cenzoic era. The youngest substances known as
amber are not properly amber at all, since the resin they were formed from
is not fossilized: these are the so-called "recent resins" and include copal
and kauri gums. There are a few other true fossilized resins, but they are
almost never encountered except in museums, the Orient, or in some
collector's private possession.
Below I will give a few hints that should help the Yule shopper
while actually "out in the field" hunting amber for purchase. Alas, some of
the most valuable tests for discriminating the real Queen of Gems from
lesser amber imitations require either more equipment than is easily
transportable, or in the case of hot point or knife testing, the trader
offering amber for sale may be reluctant to allow even a tiny test in an
inconspicuous location. At times, the only way to tell for certain if a
given material is truly amber is to thoroughly test your purchases when you
have returned home.
It is for this reason that the Viking Answer Lady advocates, if at
all possible, that the purchaser ask if the person who is selling amber to
you will allow you to return your purchase in a day or two, "if it doesn't
work out." One does not usually inform the proprietor that one intends to
go home and conduct a battery of tests upon their wares, rather, one
expresses some concern that the person for whom these gems are being
purchased may not care for the stone, or for the exact color, or the stones
may not exactly match an existing piece which one already owns but does not
have with one at the present time. The Viking Answer Lady offers these
cautions in the spirit advocated by the Allfather in Havamal (Lee Hollander,
Poetic Edda. Austin: Univ of Texas Press. 1962, pp. 14, 21):
(1) "Have thy eyes about thee when thou enterest be wary alway, be
watchful alway; for one never knoweth when need will be to meet hidden foe
in the hall."
his wit hath need who widely fareth --- a dull wit will do
(6) "To be bright of brain let no man boast, but take good heed of
his tongue: the sage and silent come seldom to grief as they fare among folk
in the hall. [More faithful friend findest thou never than shrewd head on
"If another there be whom ill thou trustest, yet wouldst get
him gain: speak fair to him though false thou meanest and pay him
lesing for lies."
SHOPPING FOR AMBER
The best test in most casesl, and the one that is the easiest to
conduct while shopping, is to carefully examine the item offered for sale
using a small magnifying glass and comparing the piece you are considering
to one or more pieces of amber which you already own and know beyond doubt
TOOLS TO TAKE WITH YOU WHEN SHOPPING FOR AMBER
or 10X magnifying glass
a couple of pieces of real amber for comparison purposes (ideally one with
sun spangles, another with a bug or two, a piece of "fatty" or "milk" amber
would be helpful as well, and maybe even a piece of copal)
Your fingernails and a copper penny for testing hardness.
Possibly a backpack or satchel containing your hot point testing equipment,
a pocketknife, a 6" square piece of wool or velvet, a small vial of
confetti/paper shreds, and maybe even three floatation test jars prefilled
with salt solution, well padded to prevent breakage. Another excellent
component of the Compleat Amber Stalker's Kit would be a copy of Dr. Patty
Rice's book, "Amber: the Golden Gem of the Ages," (see full citation at the
bottom of this document).
DO NOT go out wearing all of your amber! It is helpful in some instances to
appear to be less informed and intelligent than one actually is in order to
drive the best bargain (see the words of the Allfather, above!)
THINGS TO LOOK FOR WHEN SHOPPING FOR AMBER
amber is formed by slow, gradual oozing, while imitation
either poured swiftly or even injection molded. Comparing a real
of amber side by side with an imitation will show differences in the
MOLD MARKS: Imitations may show irregular back surfaces caused by curing in
open air, seams left by a mold, bubbles elongated to a point on either end
near the center left by injection casting, or even little raised runes that
read "MADE IN TAIWAN."
HARDNESS: Baltic amber rates about 2 to 2.5 on the Moh's Scale of Hardness
(see bottom of document). The average human fingernail likewise rates 2 to
2.5 on this scale. It should be extremely difficult to scratch a piece of
amber with your fingernail. A penny rates 3 on this scale, and will scratch
amber. Gentle Reader, do be discreet about gouging the proprietor's
purported amber with your nails or copper pennies! Ideally one would obtain
permission first, or at the very least test in an inconspicuous spot and
TESTING METHODS TO DETERMINE IF YOU HAVE GENUINE AMBER
are several tests which will definitively identify the
of a purported piece of amber. Alas, one needs chemicals
a gemological testing lab to use these methods. However, the
Answer Lady cautions her Gentle Readers not to despair, for there are
several good tests for determining real amber which can be performed in an
ordinary home, or even while on an amber-shopping expedition.
HOT POINT TESTING
While there are expensive gizmos sold with which to perform this
test, the Viking Answer Lady favors using a 2" - 3" long piece of copper
wire clamped firmly in a pair of hemostats or using needle nose pliers. (The
Viking Answer Lady has used an unbent steel paper clip in a pinch, but don't
hold it in your bare fingers!). This wire can then be heated in a flame
(your Bic lighter will do just fine) until the end glows. One then touches
the hot end to some inconspicuous place on the item being tested, such as
just inside the hole of a bead, in an area on the back, or perhaps hidden or
obscured by the mounting of the stone. Gentle Readers, please do be very
careful while performing this test, so as not to burn yourself or any
assistant who may be helping you to conduct your tests. Remember that the
hot wire should be set on a non-flammable, non-meltable surface after
testing, and that the wire may still be hot enough to cause burns even after
it stops glowing.
When hot pointing, the Gentle Reader should observe whether the
substance being tested burns, melts, or shows no effect. Try to waft a bit
of any smoke produced towards your nose, and note the odor produced. Note
whether any of the tested substance sticks to the end of the hot point. The
differing responses of amber and of the various types of amber imitations
are listed below in the "Test Matrix."
An advantage of hot pointing is that the testing equipment is very
portable. Take it with you when you go shopping, but do ask the proprietor
before you hot point anything in his establishment: the Viking Answer Lady
has found that in her own experience no one at Gem and Mineral Shows will
allow hot pointing (although some vendors have their own professional hot
point rigs and will conduct the test for you so that you can observe the
results), but almost all garage sales will, and about half of flea market or
swap meet vendors. SCA merchants are unpedictible on this account.
Gentle Readers, the floatation test is a fairly simple means of
determining an approximate specific gravity of the substance being tested.
A drawback of this method over hot pointing is that in order to get valid
results, one must have loose stones or beads, for metal findings and
settings will greatly increase the average density, and stringing materials
in necklaces may cause unpredictable variations in testing. An advantage of
floatation over hot pointing is that no damage is done to the material being
tested. The differing responses of amber and of the various types of amber
imitations are listed below in the "Test Matrix."
While floatation testing is generally performed at home, the Viking
Answer Lady, when embarking upon trips to garage sales, flea markets and
swap meets with serious intent to purchase amber, has often made up three
large-mouthed jars (peanut butter jars work beautifully) as follows and
padded them with open cell foam so that they might be carried in a backpack
or satchel and used for testing before purchase. Most proprietors will
allow floatation testing, as it does not harm the substance being tested and
all one needs to do is wipe the amber off with a cloth after removing it
from the test containers.
In order to perform the test, take the piece being tested and drop
it gently into Jar [A], and note whether it floats or sinks. Remove the
piece, pat it dry with a clean paper towel or cloth, and repeat with Jar [B]
and again with Jar [C].
FOR FLOATATION TESTING YOU WILL NEED:
[A] one jar filled with a solution of 1 tablespoon salt to each 10 oz H2O.
[B] one jar
filled with a solution of 2 tablespoons salt to each 10 oz H2O.
[C] one jar filled with a solution
of 3 tablespoons salt to each 10 oz H2O.
STATIC ELECTRICITY TESTING
The Greek philosopher Thales made an
important discovery while
studying amber ca 600 B.C. which has had
profound effects upon our modern
civilization. Thales found that amber
which had been vigorously rubbed
against a material such as wool or
fur would attract small bits of straw,
lint or pith (static-electricity
generation). Interestingly enough, the
Greek name for amber was ELEKTRON,
a word whose derivatives have come to
mean so much to our modern way
To test for static electricity generation, the Gentle Reader will
need a small piece of wool or velvet cloth and some small bits of shredded
paper or confetti. The Viking Answer Lady recommends trying this test at
home with a piece or two of amber which is known to be genuine, so as to
determine the optimal confetti diameter to use in testing. It is extremely
easy to carry a 6" square of wool or velvet and a small vial or old plastic
pillbottle containing small paper bits. The method is identical to that
used by Thales 2600 years ago. Vigorously rub the material being tested
with the cloth, then bring the purported amber near a small scattering of
paper bits. If the paper is attracted by to the stone, then the material
has tested positive for static electricity generation. The various
imitation ambers which do or do not possess this property are listed below
in the "Test Matrix."
A knife blade averages about 5.5 on the Moh's Hardness scale, and
can be used to cut amber. If one scrapes a bit of genuine amber (which is
brittle) in an inconspicuous spot, small granules or powder are produced.
Many imitations shave off small curls of material instead, as noted in the
"Test Matrix" below.
While most proprietors will not allow the Gentle Reader to perform
knife testing, some will if it can be done in an inconspicuous location
without unduly damaging the piece, therefore it's a good idea to include a
pocketknife along with the other tools of the Amber Stalker's trade.
AMBER will only
float in [B] and/or [C], depending on the exact variety of
Real amber will take a static charge when rubbed with wool, does not
readily, gives off a piney odor when hot pointed, and tends to be
to the touch unlike the chill from hard gems or glass. Sp. Grav =
to 1.10. Hardness - Baltic = 2 to 2.5, Burmese or pressed amber = 3,
Dominican = 1.5 to 2. Knife testing results in granules or powder.
COPAL While vigorous rubbing with wool or velvet will impart a static
charge to true amber, and sometimes release a faint scent of pine due to
heat generated by friction, vigorous rubbing to the point of heating will
cause heat softening of the surface layers of copal, making them slightly
sticky.. Like amber, copal may have embedded bugs or plant bits. Copal is a
"recent resin" meaning it has not been fossilized, and is most commonly
found in Africa, Brazil, East India, and a similar substance, Kauri Gum, is
found in New Zealand. Sp. Grav = 1.06 to 1.08
IMITATION COPAL (African Amber, Afghanistan Amber, Egyptian Amber, Prayer
Beads) floats in [A], [B] and [C], and may even float in plain H2O.
Usually pale yellow, turbid red, or "heat-reddened" (true copal cannot be
heat-reddened -- it just melts). The "Egyptian" or "Afghanistan" variety
usually are found in conjunction with old Middle Eastern silver beads.
Imitation copal is made of synthetic resins. This imitation of an imitation
of amber may be distinguished by noting flow lines where the material was
formed into long rods than cut into beads, and is especially noticable if
one obtains several beads from the same rod at once. A uniform grain
running parallel to the axis of many similar, large-sized, tubular or
barrel-shaped beads indicates that they were originally one long piece of
plastic. Hot pointing results in melting and a burnt plastic odor. Sp. Grav
float in [C] or in a saturated solution of salt water. Polybern
made of real amber chips, amber dust, and some polystyrene resin.
made in a mold with a layer of resin, chips then resin. Look for
marks, layering from the three-stage resin pour, and tiny air bubbles
around the embedded chips. Hot pointing polybern can often smell just like
amber due to high quantity of amber dust in the matrix. Be suspicious of
any chunky, square-edged looking "amber" especially if it originated in
Poland or sometimes Germany. It looks good, but should cost 1/3 or less of
real amber. Sp. Grav = varies.
POLYSTYRENE (plastic, thermoplastic) floats in [A], [B] and [C], and may
even float in plain H2O. Generates static electricity when rubbed on wool or
velvet. Hot pointing results in melting and a burnt plastic odor. Sp. Grav
= 1.05. Knife testing results in curls or shavings.
CELLULOID (cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate) sinks in [A], [B] and [C].
Adheres to hot point w/camphor odor (warning, may be extremely flammable!)
Fluoresces yellowish-white in UV light. Sp. Grav = 1.29 to 1.42. Knife
testing results in curls or shavings. May be valuable in and of itself as an
antique imitation amber.
HORN sinks in [A], [B] and [C] and often sinks even in a saturated salt
solution, though rare examples may float due to trapped air in internal
layers. Most often originates in Ireland, frequently appear as rosaries or
rosary beads, usually dyed to a yellowish color, made into small
barrel-shaped beads. Hot point gives a definitive identification as horn
due to the burnt hair odor. Sp. Grav >1.10
BERNIT sinks in [A], [B] and sometimes [C]. An imitation amber containing
"stress spangles" or "sun spangles"... you have to get a real piece of amber
with real spangles next to it to see that Bernit is fake, usually Bernit
spangles are bent and do not have the radiating rays in the disk of the
spangle. Some Bernit pieces have plant bits or bugs, but if you look with a
magnifying glass, you will see there are not any of the tiny bubbles left by
a live bug that suffocated in the sap, or little swirls left by the bug's
legs as it struggled to free itself. Be especially suspicious of "amber"
with big bugs.
SLOCUM IMITATION AMBER sinks in [A], [B] and sometimes [C]. Sold in blocks
to lapidaries. Usually orange or red with spangles and/or bugs, spangles
look "frosted" under 5X or 10X magnification and the bugs are usually way
too numerous. Hot point gives off burnt fruit odor. Sp. Grav = 1.17.
Hardness = 3.
BAKELITE sinks in [A], [B] and [C] and even in a totally saturated salt
water solution. Usually red or sometimes black in color, even pieces 100
years old show no wear by the string at bead holes. Bakelite burns
reluctantly or not at all when hot pointed, and generates an acrid odor.
Generates static electricity when rubbed on wool or velvet. Bakelite is the
same stuff telephones are made of. Sp. Grav = 1.25. May be valuable in and
of itself as an antique imitation amber.
CASEIN sinks in [A], [B] and [C]. Fluoresces white in UV light. Produces a
scorched milk smell when hot pointed. Made of a hardened milk protein. Does
not generate static electricity when rubbed on wool or velvet. Sp. Grav =
1.32. May be valuable in and of itself as an antique imitation amber.
GLASS sinks in [A], [B] and [C] Glass beads will be cold to the touch, have
a harder gloss to the surface, and two glass beads make a clinking,
scratching sound when rubbed against one another. Usually faceted when
OTHER SUBSTANCES WHICH MAY BE CONFUSED
AMBER OR USED TO IMITATE AMBER:
Meerschaum Sp. Grav = 1.10 to 1.20
Jet - (Black Amber) Like pearl, nacre, coral, and amber, jet is an organic
gem. Jet is a variety of lignite coal, a fossil wood. The Vikings
considered jet to be "Black Amber," while the Chinese beleived that in time
amber became transformed into jet. Sp. Grav = 1.10 to 1.38
Acrylic Plastics - plexiglas, lucite, perspex. Sp. Grav = 1.18 to 1.19
Tortoiseshell - Sp. Grav = 1.1.26 to 1.35
Vegetable Ivory - used to mimic "fatty" or "milk" ambers, may be dyed. Sp.
Grav = 1.38 to 1.40
Mineral Coal - Sp. Grav = 1.40
Ivory - used to mimic "fatty" or "milk" ambers, may be dyed. Sp. Grav
Moh's Scale of
(Used to calculate Hardness Values
for minerals and other materials)
1 = Talc
2 = Gypsum
3 = Calcite
4 = Fluorite
5 = Apatite
6 = Orthoclase
7 = Quartz
8 = Topaz
9 = Corundum
10 = Diamond
The Viking Answer Lady wishes to acknowledge her enormous debt to:
Patty C. Rice. Amber: the Golden Gem of the Ages. New York: Kosciuszko
Foundation. 1987. ISBN 0-917-00720-5. (softcover, $19.95 new).
[The article above is merely
a book report which has presented
volumes of fascinating information provided by Dr. Rice. I highly
recommend that anyone who is interested in amber or the folklore
of gems, or anyone who intends to collect amber or even to
purchase a single piece obtain a
copy of this book. Most jewelry
and lapidary supplies stock copies in both hard and softcover.]
This Article Has Been Extracted from the Files of the Viking Answer Lady
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Gunnora Hallakarva)
Date: Thu, 28 Nov 1996 19:23:34 -0600
Subject: Fwd: More Yule Shopping Advice for Buying Amber
Heilsa, all. I
thought I'd pass this useful bit of info along...
From: email@example.com (Scott Jaqua)
Subject: Re: Yule Shopping Advice for Buying Amber
gunnora@bga.COM (Gunnora Hallakarva)
Dear Viking Amber Lady-
I have discovered an extremely useful tool to use in hot pointing
amber. It's a jeweler's battery
operated wax welder. It's not much
bigger than a pen, uses one small battery, and has a needle fine
of wire at the tip. It comes with a cap, so you can throw it in the
of your purse. All you do is hold the button down on the side
while holding it like a pen, and the
tip heats up to red hot in an
instant. It costs about $20.
Allesaundra de Crosthwaite
Wassail and God Jul,