Dear Bead Friends,
I have read through the dialogue pertaining to a strand of amber beads. It is a curious situation, that these beads were found in Burma--and yet they are not clearly Burmese amber nor Baltic amber. It is also quite unlikely that they are copal. Since I can only see a portion of the strand in the photograph posted, I am not confident that I can provide an answer that is dependable. I’d like to add some general information to the dialogue, that I hope will be useful. And I want to remark that these comments and much more are available at my Yahoo Group:
As elsewhere in bead study, we are often confused and mired-down by false assumptions about names and terms, and what they may or may not imply or indicate, and by frequent mistaken use or application of the names/terms. A great deal of misinformation is spread by bead-sellers, whose object is to sell a product, while sounding informed, when he/she may be rather ignorant, or even deceptive. All too frequently, descriptions are not candid, not precise, and are geared to make a sale. Meaning that the material is described incorrectly for what the object actually is, because the enhanced description makes the item warrant a higher price--making it seem older, rarer, or just better, and making it seem authentic when it is not.
Here, we are dealing with two POPULAR names: “amber,” and “copal.” As I published in 1976, in the first exposé that dealt with the issue of “African amber” (because this was a significant issue from ca. 1972 with the influx of African beads into the US and Europe), considerable misinformation and misrepresentation was rampant at that time, and remains so even today. Collectors were concerned about whether the beads they were acquiring (primarily out of Mali, but possibly from ANY African nation) were “real amber,” or “merely copal.” In point of fact, the vast majority of these beads were PLASTIC. So we were dealing with a false dichotomy. Bead sellers were happy enough to have people arguing over the amber/copal issue, but were scandalized when I pointed out that these beads were entirely artificial, and neither amber nor copal.
“Amber” is a popular name, and is not a scientific and specific name. Anyone can apply the name “amber” to any material he/she likes, and in very few places in the world would there be much one could do when the name had been misapplied to materials that were not traditionally designated as “amber.” (The exception is Germany, where there are actual laws concerning the use of this name.) The material we generally think of as “amber,” or “true amber,” or “Baltic amber,” has a scientific name--this being succinite (“SOO-kin-ait”). Whereas one may call anything “amber,” legally, if a material is identified as “succinite,” and it is not that, THIS is legal misrepresentation. In the field of amber, it is well-recognized that MANY materials from various sources are rightly characterized as “amber”--though they are not necessarily succinite (as they lack succinic acid in their compositions). Apart from the materials exploited in Northern Europe, collectively called “Baltic amber,” amber is known to have been actively acquired and distributed from these sources: Sicily, Rumania, Burma, the Dominican Republic, and México. (There are many other sources--but those ambers are much more rare, pieces are small, and the material is often not beautiful. As such, these are not places where their local amber could be exploited for jewelry and ornaments on a commercial scale. So they are negligent, and not very cogent to the discussion.)
Curiously, it is mainly Baltic amber that often, proportionally, has a cloudy or opaque “butter yellow” appearance. As much as 75% of Baltic amber has this quality, ranging from dead-white in color through tones of yellow, and rarely with greenish and bluish tinges. In the European esthetic, clear (yellow) amber is regarded as superior to cloudy amber. There are two primary reasons for this: 1) transparent amber more resembles precious stones that are more highly valued for their clarity; and 2) transparent amber is more likely to have inclusions that make such pieces valuable (these inclusions being animal, vegetable, and more rarely mineral). The exploiters of Baltic amber were and are more likely to export cloudy amber abroad--and we find that this material, now having become traditional--having the expected appearance--can be more-preferred in such places as China (Asia) and Africa.
The substance of cloudy amber has this appearance due to billions of microscopic bubbles. In the 19th century, through experimentation, amber workshops discovered that cloudy amber could be carefully heated in oil, and the oil would fill the bubbles, making the material clear. This is called “clairified amber.” It is not as optically beautiful as natural clear amber, but the process is considered an “improvement.” No doubt experiments in dealing with amber led to the development of techniques whereby small pieces of amber were heated to a gummy state, and were compressed into a single larger piece. This was developed in 1881, and became known as “pressed amber” or “ambroid.” Ambroid likewise lacks the optical clarity and gemlike luster of natural amber, but it became possible to recycle all the shavings and dust from working amber to make additional products. Also very small pieces of amber, too small to be worked into ornaments were pressed. (In the 18th and 19th Cs., these pieces were also made into amber varnish--a very high-quality product, used for the best wood constructions and musical instruments.) Eventually, amber was autoclaved--meaning it was carefully heated to exactly the correct temperature, and mechanically spun to arrange the mass and shoot it into molds of various shapes--these being tubes (cylinders), blocks, and plates. Ambroid is cheaper than natural amber (or ought to be). Because of the appliances required for pressing amber, it has only been produced in three regions: Germany (where it was invented), Poland, and Russia. Ideas promoted that amber is pressed by the Chinese or any technologically primitive people (in the past) are largely or fully untrue. Ambroid was exported to the areas where we may find it, and perhaps locally worked. I have documented pressed amber from Tibet and Morocco, for instance. Depending on which amber is used, and how it’s treated, ambroid can be transparent, translucent, and textured (having a “spongy” uniform appearance). Autoclaved amber that is spun often has a spiral structure. It is important to understand that true amber, when heated, does not melt to a liquid (!). It merely softens and becomes gummy.
The amber from other sources is not inclined to be cloudy and butter-yellow. Opacity may be caused by rich inclusions (such as chaff from the forest floor of millions of years ago). This makes the material dark-colored, but it remains translucent. From early texts, we understand that the amber of Burma and Sicily can be more inclined to be reddish or even red. This is not a strident red, as we see in imitations--but is more orange or tawny, all the way to appearing black in reflected light, though sometimes blood-red in transmitted light. This amber is MUCH MORE RARE than the plastic imitations passed-off as “amber.” Two interesting varieties of amber are described as combining opaque light-colored material with translucent dark-colored material, mottled together, or progressing from one to the other. In China this material is called “root amber.” Some Rumanian amber is similarly described--but this material is extremely rare since the 19th C. I have never seen any in real life. The Chinese material has long been assumed to have come from China or somewhere in mainland Asia. However, in recent years I have been given to understand that its actual source is the island of Borneo. I am investigating this information.
The ambers of Chiapas, México and the Dominican Reiublic are very similar. This is not surprising, since they are both derived from leguminous tree resins, and from a similar geological age. (About 25 to 40 million years ago.) Both regions also produce much younger copal materials, also leguminous in origin. These trees still live and thrive, and can be recognized by the distinct “bean pods” they produce after flowering.
Méxican and Dominican ambers are typically translucent, and range from almost colorless through golden and reddish and red tones. It can, as described above, be so dark in color as to appear black until held to the light, where it reveals its red or reddish color. Generally, it’s not unusual for the color to be darkest at the surface (the nodule crust). As it is cut, the interior is revealed and may be more obviously red or mottled (red and golden yellow). However, brown tones are quite common as well. I have also seen stratified Dominican amber that has dark stripes in a clear matrix, that resembles tortoise shell.
When I went to China in 1997, in the Beijing flea market, I purchased translucent golden brown amber (with darker swirls), that I could not identify for origin. It most resembled Dominican (or Méxican) amber, but might be Burmese or even Borneoan. In Beijing, I also bought specimens of wood amber (probably a variety from Borneo), new root amber, dusky reddish material that I assume is pressed, and plastic imitations of yellow and red amber, and mottled root amber. These were not convincing to my eyes, but were reasonably well made. Since that time, the Chinese have produced many tons of fake amber, that are now routinely passed-off as “amber,” and often said to be “old beads from Tibet.” This is entirely untrue. The material is plastic. Old Tibetan amber beads are largely European Baltic amber. But these authentic old beads have become quite rare. Knowing the technological progress the Chinese have made in recent years, I think it is possible they now press real amber. But I have no information to support this idea, yet. But we should expect this now is or soon will be the circumstance.
When I look at the strand of beads we are discussing here, I notice that they are essentially nuggets that have been tumble-polished and drilled. Drilled nodules (whether polished or not) are the most common and inexpensive presentations of European amber. The pendant is similar but has been slightly more conventionally shaped. The appearance of the material reminds me as much of Dominican or Méxican amber.
I am NOT confident what the origin of this material and these beads may be. In our present global economy, it’s possible that Dominican and Méxican ambers are being exploited by the companies in China that crank-out cheap beads. It’s also possible that Western amber beads have been taken by someone to Burma. Last week, in New York City, I saw these beads selling for $8. retail as sixteen-inch (short) strands. But the material is not what I associate with typical Burmese amber. Not its material look nor its presentation.
Regarding copal--particularly in the modern marketplace. We need to understand that copals are recent or semi-fossil resinous materials that are usually under one million years old, and often only around a thousand years old, or even from recently-dead trees. Given several million years and fortuitous polymerization, copal could turn into amber (as happened at México and the Dominican Republic). However, copal remains practically unchanged from any resin we could gather from any living trees. It is soft, melts at a very low temperature, turns to a liquid, "spins a thread," and burns easily. As a material, it also biodegrades quickly. Ultraviolet radiation (from the sun) and exposure to the air cause it to break-down and fall apart. Copal is a very unreliable biodegradable or environmentally degradable bead material.
In the 1980s, copal from the Dominican Republic was available in the form of beads. These were pale colored--almost water-clear, and sometimes vaguely pinkish or beige. In my experience these “kotui” beads are rather rare. For just under twenty years now, authentic copal from Guinea-Bissau (in coastal W. Africa) has been available as simple (even crude) inexpensive beads. The material is clear and almost colorless. It crazes easily, causing the surface to appear cloudy or chalky, and breaks easily. Rather than being drilled, a hot poker is used to pierce cleaned nodules. For nearly the same length of time, copal from Colombia has been exploited and commercially marketed. It has routinely been misrepresented as “Colombian amber.” This is problematic, because actual pre-Columbian amber appeared in the marketplace from Colombia, in the early 1990s. This was CLEARLY not copal. (Copal would have self-destructed long ago.) I have speculated that this may have been either Méxican or Dominican material, received in trade from the north. There is now no known source for actual Colombian amber. But it is not impossible that a local source was exploited in ancient times, that is now lost or exhausted. Colombian copal is rich in insect inclusions--causing considerable popularity, and enhancing the proposition that it is “amber,” as promoted by disreputable sellers.
Finally, about two and half years ago “green Colombian amber” appeared in the American marketplace. I first saw it at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. However, I was advised this stuff was being manufactured in Poland somewhat earlier. (See my Group for the exposé.) Two or more companies in Poland are buying large quantities of Colombian copal and are manipulating it to make it harder and more jewelry-worthy. It was discovered that if it is autoclaved, there is a marked tendency for the material to turn greenish. I believe that the bright ruby-red specimens I have seen must be dyed. (They are not merely heat-treated, which would make some material reddish, in all likelihood.) The first company I found marketing this stuff was very cagey about what it was. I was told it was “Caribbean amber”--which is EASY to misunderstand or misinterpret (as “Dominican,” for instance). The prices were HIGH, and I didn’t purchase any. This year (2011) I found another company that was more forthright and charged more reasonable prices, so I bought some pieces for my specimen collections.
I hope this has been a useful dissertation on the present amber scene.
Jamey D. Allen
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