Is Your Amber the Real Deal?
Amber is fossilized tree resin which has undergone molecular polymerization over many millions of years. It is highly prized for use in jewelry because of its beautiful color, transparency, and lightness. It is also of great interest to the scientific community, as much of it has been found with ancient insects and plant life encased and preserved within.
Amber sales skyrocketed after the release of the movie Jurassic Park, which featured scientists resurrecting several dinosaur species by extracting DNA from mosquitoes preserved in amber, to disastrous results. Fortunately for us, scientists have recently discovered that DNA has a 521-year half-life. Dinosaur DNA would simply be too old to clone.
Unfortunately, the popularity of amber has given rise to many imposters and imitations passed off as the real thing. So how do we make sure that the amber we are purchasing is real? We have found a few tests you can do at home (or in the classroom) to verify that what you have is real fossilized amber and not plastic, glass, or copal. Copal is tree resin that has not yet fossilized. (It will, though, if you’re willing to wait a few million years.)
Real amber is impervious to solvents like alcohol and acetone (nail polish remover). Place a drop or two of your solvent onto the surface of the sample you are testing. If the sample becomes sticky, or the color of the sample leeches into the solvent, then it’s either plastic or copal. Amber or glass will have no reaction to these solvents.
Amber has been used as a natural incense and mosquito repellent for hundreds of years. When burned, it releases a pine scent into the air, darkens with soot, and may bubble as it burns. Glass will neither burn nor melt. Copal or plastic will quickly melt. Plastic will smell terrible. (Note: Be sure to do this experiment with plenty of ventilation!)
When rubbed vigorously on wool, real amber will also emit a pleasant, piney smell. If rubbed for long enough, it will even pick up a static charge. Amber can be used in conjunction with our Static Tube Kit (SS-7). The charged amber will pick up the small Styrofoam pieces. (This should not be too surprising; the Greek word elektron means amber.)
Amber is less dense than salt water, and will float. Glass, copal, and the plastic used in imitation amber will not float. In fact, amber is often collected after storms, washed up on beaches after being stirred up from the ocean floor.
Amber has a hardness between 2 and 3 on the Mohs scale. It will leave a white streak on a streak plate. This can easily be tested with our Hardness/Steak Test (RM-410).
Finally, there is the taste test. If you wash the amber sample with soap and water, and are very brave, you can try to taste it. Amber and copal will have no discernible taste. Plastic usually has a chemical taste that is very unpleasant.