Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Glories of Amber - Part Three: Types

Amber material as used in jewelry is separated into several types based on processing and genuine amber content. Only the first four categories are recognized by the International Amber Society, but a market exists for all seven categories. And since you’ll encounter all of them when you are looking for amber beads, I list them all here.

1. Natural Baltic Amber is 100% Baltic Amber that has had no treatment that changes natural properties. Allowable changes are mechanical only, such as cutting and polishing. Beads will generally be irregular in shape, from translucent to opaque, come in a variety of colors, and have inclusions and marks. Amber does not naturally weather into round shapes, so round beads are rarely cut from Natural Baltic Amber, since it wastes material. Natural Baltic Amber is very expensive, and while highly desired by some, others are not attracted to the look of amber in this closer to raw state. Must be treated with care.

2. Modified (Heated) Baltic Amber is 100% Baltic Amber that has been subjected to heat, high pressure, or both. This treatment will change the color and clarity of most amber, making it more translucent, and the color more uniform. Beads will still often be irregular, but fewer inclusions and marks will be present. Many larger, quality cabochons are made of Modified Amber. Since these processes greatly improve the look of amber, there is much Modified Amber on the market. It is the alternative to Natural Amber for some, but remains very expensive. Heat treating makes the material somewhat harder and resistant to scratching, but it still must be handled with care.

3. Pressed Amber is 100% Baltic Amber that started out as small pieces. These pieces are then pressed together under high pressure and temperature into a single larger piece. No additional components can be added in this category and have the material still considered 100% Baltic Amber. The pressing process allows for much more uniformity in size, shape, and color. Most round amber beads on the market have been pressed, and are still a pricey choice for their 100% Baltic Amber content. This material is usually a little harder than Modified Amber.

4. Bonded Amber is almost entirely amber, but has a tiny amount of glue or bonding agent added in the process of heating and pressing small pieces together into a larger whole. Usually indistinguishable from Pressed Amber to the naked eye. It can be somewhat less expensive than Pressed Amber, which uses no glues. Similar hardness to Pressed Amber.

5. Ambroid (Amberoid) contains some percentage of genuine Amber or amber chips with another percentage of modern resins. Generally, the higher the percentage of real amber in the material, the higher the quality and cost will be. Quality ambroid, made of a high percentage of genuine Baltic Amber with some added natural modern resins, offers the look of Pressed Amber at a moderate price. However, there is low quality ambroid, made of a small amount of genuine amber and a large amount of synthetic resins, to watch out for. Ambroid is the material that is most often passed of as 100% natural amber in an attempt to get buyers to pay more. Quality Ambroid is a durable material that resists pitting and scratches reasonably well.

6. Copal is not actually amber by any definition, but can resemble amber at a fraction of the price. Copal is much, much younger tree resin that have dried sufficiently that jewelry can be fashioned from it. Price is highly variable, depending on if it is being passed off as “amber.” Untreated copal is still soluble in liquids such as acetone, and so can deteriorate quickly if it comes in contact with certain hair sprays, makeup, and lotions. Must be handled gently.

7. Imitation Amber is also not amber by any definition other than superficial look. This material can be anything, from glass to plastic, that attempts to mimic amber. Usually very inexpensive. If your amber is priced very low, it probably isn’t amber at all. Durability depends entirely on the material.

With all these choices, it can be a little confusing to ensure you are getting exactly what you want at a proper price, but the first step is staying informed! Image Credit:  Amber cabochons,

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