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Can hot water damage amber? January 5, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Amber has become my go-to winter jewelry, because a) it’s warm and b) its honey tones are like captured sunshine, cheering me up during the dark, dreary winter days. (Amber is actually fossilized tree resin from prehistoric coniferous forests.) Winter has definitely arrived in our part of scenic PA, so I’ve been wearing amber a lot lately, much to the chagrin of our friend Ben.

You see, it’s poor OFB who has to wrestle with the dreaded lobster-claw clasps to attach the four (yes, you read that right) amber bracelets I wear on one arm each day. (Even OFB had to admit that they looked great together and looked like a single stunning bracelet.) After a few days of agonizing effort, the aggrieved OFB looked at me and said, “Why don’t you just leave them on?!!”

Oh. Well, amber is lightweight, and the bracelets are close-fitting, so they wouldn’t flap and flop all over the place and wake us up at night. Why not? But there was the issue of the shower. I like hot showers. Would the hot water damage the naturally soft amber, maybe cloud its surface? I headed to my good friend Google to find out. If you love amber, you might be interested in some of the things I found out along the way:

* Natural amber can range through all the honey colors, from true gold clover honey to red-brown buckwheat honey (cherry amber), and of course the rich orange-brown color we know as amber. Green and lemon amber are created by a heating process. They’re still real amber, but apparently, at least with green amber, the color will eventually turn hideously murky and milky, something to bear in mind while you’re jewelry shopping. Blue amber, by contrast, is found naturally in the Dominican Republic and is highly prized.

* Amber is easy to fake. Glass “amber” beads have been around a long time, but are easy to distinguish from real amber because they’re heavier and cold; true amber is light and never cold. Plastics are harder to detect, since they’re also generally light and warm like amber. Every sort of plastic has been used to fake amber, from Bakelite and Celluloid to modern plastics. (Bakelite, unlike other plastics, is apparently much heavier than amber; it’s also more valuable, so don’t toss that plastic necklace!) Copal, a naturally-occurring resin that is hard but not yet fossilized, has also been passed off as amber. And small fragments of amber have been heated and fused together to make a single amber “stone.”

* There are plenty of ways to detect the fakes. From sticking a red-hot needle into a bead to floating it in salt water, Google was full of helpful hints for distinguishing genuine amber from its many knock-offs. But since most of them could damage the beads, I preferred this one:

* Use a blacklight. As it happens, OFB has a little blacklight flashlight to see if the marbles in his collection fluoresce (a very cool feature). When I read that true amber showed green or blue highlights under blacklight, I grabbed his flashlight, went into a dark corner, and checked my bracelets. Whew! They all lit up. (Though ironically, the ones that showed the most dramatic change were the lemon and green amber drops on one bracelet.) Now I’ll have to check out my rings, earrings and necklaces.*

* Keep your amber protected. Because amber is naturally soft, it’s easily scratched and damaged. It’s recommended that you keep your amber separate from your other jewelry (thankfully, I already had a special soft cloth box just for my amber). Even a fingernail can apparently scratch it. Sunlight can darken amber, so store your amber in the dark. Don’t leave it out on a tray in bright sunlight. It can also interact with perfumes, creams, and cleaners, so you should put on your jewelry after you’ve put on everything else, and take it off before scrubbing dishes or household surfaces.

* Amber can be cleaned and restored. You can wash amber in warm, soapy water, rinse in warm water, and dry it carefully, then air-dry to finish. To polish dulled amber, apply a little extra-virgin olive oil with a soft cloth, rub very gently (friction from rubbing can also apparently damage amber), then use a clean part of the cloth to wipe off the excess oil. If your amber is scratched, there’s a specialty liquid plastic that can be applied with a cloth after the cleaning and before the oiling. I’d suggest that you read up about this via Google, or consult a jeweler, before attempting it.

So, okay, what about that hot water? The answers were unclear at best. Hot water can damage amber. But apparently, water hot enough to damage amber would be too hot to be comfortable on skin, too. So could I take a shower in my amber bracelets? Maybe. But who’d want to take that chance? Looks like poor OFB is out of luck on this one.  

Please share your amber adventures (and misadventures) with us!

                 ‘Til next time,

                            Silence

* This just in: Because amber is soft and notoriously difficult to cut, I’d always assumed that faceted amber was fake. But I have one faceted amber necklace, and the blacklight turned it a strong milky green in a heartbeat, proving that real amber can be faceted.

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