A buying guide for amber – the golden gemstone
If you are someone who admires the unique in nature, amber is sure to interest you. This beautiful gemstone is one of the oldest that has been used for jewelry (going all the way to 13,000 years back) famed for its golden hue and simple beauty. Amber is a must for any jewelry collector and if you’re on the hunt for a beautiful piece of amber jewelry, but not quite sure where to start, let’s walk through everything you need to know before you buy.
Amber is actually made of fossilized tree resin. Resin is a fluid that oozes from certain type of trees, mainly coniferous, such as pine trees. This resin often had insects stuck in it and fossilized along with it. In fact, common inclusions in amber are ants, mosquitoes and other living things, some of these long extinct! This makes amber a great resource for scientists to explore ancient living things.
Because amber is a very soft stone, it can be burnt, and exudes a pine-scented aroma. The stone can even yield oil if heated under correct conditions.
Another curious fact about amber is that is has electrostatic properties. You can rub an amber gemstone for 20 to 50 seconds and you’ll find that it attracts little objects. Try it on your hair! If it does not attract your hair, you probably are dealing with glass or plastic.
Unlike most other gemstones, amber has numerous uses. It has been used to make crafts such as tobacco pipes, to remove lint from clothes (due to its static property), to make perfume and also in folk medicine. Even today, amber teething necklaces and bracelets are popular among moms, even in the Western world, who believe that it is a natural painkiller for their babies (there is no scientific evidence to prove this though).
You might be hard-pressed to find another gemstone that can do half as much as amber!
Tip: Rub the amber stone and check out its electrostatic properties before you buy. This will help you identify if the stone you’re looking at is real or fake. Another tip is to smell the amber. Amber always has a smell of pine. If it smells of plastic or has no odor, then it is likely a fake.
Types of amber gemstone
There are several types of amber, categorized according to their region of origin. The most commonly found is Baltic Amber, which comes from the Baltic Sea shores. Baltic Amber is thought to be the highest quality, which makes it very valuable. This natural amber can be over 40 million years old! You can find this in a range of colors, from dark yellows to white.
Another highly valued variety is Dominican amber, which generally have more inclusions. Dominican amber can be between 25 to 40 million years old and can even be found in blue and green colors.
There are also Sri Lankan, New Jersey and Mexican varieties among others.
How to evaluate Amber Gemstone
Amber comes in a variety of colors. Probably the most popular and easily recognized are the shades of cognac and yellow. You can also find amber in black, cherry, green, butterscotch and white varieties, which are rarer varieties.
- Yellow Amber is almost 70% of amber found. It varies to orange and brown depending upon the bubbles in it. This color is mainly found among the Baltic Sea variety.
- Green Amber is formed when fresh flora is a part of the formation of the amber fossil. Green amber is rare and valuable.
- Red amber is commonly called Cherry Amber. It is very rare and expensive. The natural red is slightly rusty, and can be found from golden red to dark brown.
- Blue amber is an extremely rare and very expensive variety of amber. This type is actually brown or yellow in color, but when held up to the right light (light that contains UV such as sunlight, for instance) it produces a vivid blue shade.
- Black amber is actually a very dark red or brown color. This color is formed when tree resin was mixed with soil or other dark inclusions.
Tip: Due to its wide range of colors, amber goes well with any outfit! For a night out or a formal event, you can match the amber jewelry to suit any occasion.
I personally feel that the beauty of amber, unlike many other gemstones, is in its imperfections, especially the inclusions within. Amber almost always is found with inclusions. While clear amber is valuable, amber with interesting inclusions is often more pricey.
Amber is a very light stone. In fact, it even floats on salt water. It can feel very light even in larger sizes. Carat refers to weight not size, so a 5 carat amber gemstone, for example, will be about 2.5 times larger than, say, a 5 carat diamond.
Amber is almost always cut into cabochons, with round and oval shapes being the most popular. Other shapes available in the market are stars, hexagon, pentagon, triangles and hearts.
Amber is very easy to cut because of its softness. In fact, instead of cutting, many jewelry makers opt to heat the stone, which makes it softer and easy to shape. This does not change the natural properties of the stone and is called pressed amber.
Now that we’ve had a look at all the background information, let’s get right into the heart of the matter – the reason we are really here: Amber jewelry. Amber is made into all types of jewelry, including necklaces, bracelets, brooches, earrings, pendants, rings and cufflinks. The inclusions in amber can be eye-catching and is stunning in a scientific, historical way! Very trendy and makes for a talking point.
There are two main views that exist when it comes to metals to mount amber jewelry in. Some people prefer silver-colored metals, such as white gold, as the setting for amber jewelry. The contrast of the amber against the silver brings out the stunning color of the gemstone and enhances its beauty.
On the other hand, you could use yellow gold or rose gold settings. While these do not provide as stark a contrast as silver, they tend to soften the color of amber and blends into the stone. There is no right or wrong choice, however. What matters is what you prefer!
Jewelers often enhance amber using various treatments to enhance the color, clarity or improve the durability of amber. Here are some ways they do this.
- Cloudy amber with tiny bubbles within is not very valuable. That’s why the jewelry makers clarify it by boiling it in linseed oil or rapeseed oil. It is slowly heated in the oil up to boiling point. The tiny bubbles then filled up with oil, removing traces of the bubbly inclusions.
- Because green and red amber are very rare and very expensive varieties, some jewelry makers change the color of the affordable and common variety of yellow amber. They apply a black paste on the surface, then heat the stone to clarify it and make it bond with the paste.
- The color of Amber is also modified by heat treatments and dyeing, to change or enhance the color to imitate the colors of more expensive varieties.
Beware amber imitations on the market!
It is easy to make amber imitations.
The most common imitation being sold in the market of amber gemstones is copal. So what is copal? Copal is not quite a hardened resin and not quite sap – it is somewhere in between these. Copal looks like amber but is younger and of a different texture, making it less valuable.
Other imitations include glass or plastic. Sometimes, the fake stones are found with interesting fake inclusions like insects, leaves and flowers.
Never fear though. It is easy to tell fake amber from real amber. Here are a number of ways you can test the stone out for yourself.
- A real amber exudes warmth when touched and a pine scent. Feel the stone and check out its warmth. If it is cold, it is most likely a fake.
- Amber is very light in weight and can float in salt water. Combine 1 part of salt with 2 parts of water and put the stone in it. Plastic, copal and glass will sink. True amber will float.
- Probably the most reliable test is the burn test. Amber burns but does not melt, unlike copal and plastic. You may not want to do this to your amber jewelry but if you touch a red-hot needle to amber, watch to see if it burns, releasing white smoke and pine fragrance. If it does so, it is genuine amber. Plastic will smell of chemicals and will melt. Copal will have a similar smell to genuine amber but will also melt and will not produce white smoke.
- If you have a Black or UV light, hold it to your amber stone. If it exhibits a blue or yellowish color, it is genuine. Copal will be white while plastic will have no reaction to the UV/Black light.
Cleaning and caring for amber jewelry
As we mentioned before, amber is one of the softest stones with a hardness rating of only 2 to 2.5 on the Mohs scale. That is the same hardness ranking for a fingernail, which is a 2. Compare that to a diamond which has a 10 on the Mohs scale!
This softness means amber is easily scratched and damaged. Don’t store amber jewelry with items that have faced edges or pin stems. Amber should be kept separately from all other gems and metals and should be wrapped in a soft cloth to protect it from scratching.
Amber is very sensitive to acid, gasoline, caustic solutions, alcohols and some perfumes. So apply your perfume and lotions before you wear your amber jewelry. If you expose amber to very hot or cold temperatures, there is a chance the stone can crack!
Never use an ultrasonic cleaner, soap or detergent when cleaning amber jewelry. Use a soft cloth and amber shouldn’t be soaked for a long period of time as it may spoil its shine. You can easily clean your amber using a soft cloth to wipe away dirt. If the stone is losing its luster, polish it with a bit of olive oil to bring back its shine. Make sure you wipe away excess oil as this can damage the amber. Also, it is best to take off amber jewelry before taking a shower.