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Garry Platt's Comments and Collection!

Garry Platt, a fellow amber connoisseur, has sent me information and photographs of his private collection! I appreciate all his correspondence and his article on amber identification. His beautiful photographs are included in the Life in Amber section within the document, but can be accessed here also. Garry's amber collection includes entombed spiders, centipedes, leaves, mammal hair, spider webs and even air!

Both specimens above are of Baltic origin, from Lithuania. The spider web in amber is magnified 100X, while the bubble is 120X magnification. The image directly above is what Garry Platt called a two-phase, anhydrous piece of amber. The photograph shows a bubble of air trapped within this bubble of water. He believes the analysis of air from the two-phase inclusions, both pre- and post-Cretaceous boundary layers, indicate a reduction in the amount of free oxygen by more than 7%, and act as a partial indicator of why so many large animals died out at this time.

Identifying True Amber (Succinite)

by Garry Platt

Since the screening of 'Jurassic Park', interest in amber has grown significantly. Unfortunately, so has the quantity of fake amber coming on to the market. Some of these pieces have insect inclusions skillfully placed in the body of the matrix. The British Natural History Museum recently discovered that a bee preserved in amber thought to be one of the oldest known examples of this particular species was in fact a fake and probably no more than 150 years old. Evidence of this nature, that even the best can be fooled, should alert all collectors to the possibility of being misled or simply cheated.

In some cases copal, tree resin not fully fossilized to amber and up to 3-4 million years old, is sometimes described as true amber. Debate still rages in the United Kingdom about certain Kenyan deposits as to whether they should be called copal or amber and similar arguments can be found in South America and elsewhere.

There are a number of tests which can be carried out on amber to check authenticity and they are listed below. More sophisticated, complex tests are possible but require laboratory equipment to measure refractive index, specific gravity, melting point, and a polarized light test for detecting ambroid (conglomerated and pressed amber). When examining the specimen in question, try at least three of the following methods. If the specimen fails any one test, it could indicate the piece is not true amber.

  • Hardness. Amber has a hardness on Moh's Hardness Scale of 2-3 and appropriate scratch sticks should be reasonably straightforward to test the sample under question. [Please be aware this is a destructive test.]

  • Hot Needle. Heat a needle point in a flame until glowing red and then push the point into the sample for testing. With copal, the needle melts the material more quickly than amber and emits a light, fragrant odor. Amber when tested does not melt as quickly as the copal and omits sooty fumes. [Please be aware this is a destructive test.]

  • Solubility. Copal will dissolve in acetone. This test can be done by dispensing the acetone from an eye dropper onto a clean surface of the test specimen. Place one drop on the surface of the test piece and allow to evaporate, then place a second drop on the same area. Copal will become tacky, amber will remain unaffected by contact with acetone. [Please be aware this is a destructive test.]

  • Fluorescence. Copal under a short-wave UV light shows hardly any color change. Most amber will fluoresce a pale blue.

  • Friction. Rub the specimen vigorously on a soft cloth. True amber may omit a faint resinous fragrance but copal may actually begin to soften and the surface become sticky. Amber will also become heavily charged with static electricity and will easily pick up small pieces of loose paper.

  • Taste. This test was introduced to me by an antique trader who specialized in amber beads. She explained that one of the most reliable tests she used was to taste the amber after washing in mild soapy water and rinsing in plain water. Whilst she could make no distinction between copal and amber, plastics and other common substitutes had an unpleasant or chemical taste. As a method of identification I have not seen this procedure recorded elsewhere. This is a good non-destructive method of differentiating substances misleadingly labeled amber.

  • Inclusions. Infrequently amber contains flora and fauna inclusions and correct identification should be an excellent indicator of a piece's authenticity. Most inclusions from ancient amber are of species which are now extinct.

  • Flotation. Mix 23 gm of standard table salt with 200 ml of lukewarm water. Stir until completely dissolved. Amber should float in such a mixture and some copals together with plastic imitations will sink.

    Find out more about Imitations and Identification on this page.

    More of Garry Platt's amber collection can be viewed at Bob's Rock Shop. You can contact Garry Platt for additional information at: garry@gplatt.demon.co.uk

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