The Story of “African Amber” -Are Those Ancient Beads Real or Plastic?

Presented by Rosanna Falabella

Rosanna Falabella has been a jewelry hobbyist for over 20 years and a collector and researcher since 2009.  On Tuesday, January 17, 2017, she covered what she has learned about real and imitation amber beads made in and traded by Europe.   What many people thought would be a mostly scientific, and possibly boring presentation certainly was none of the above ~ but was filled with information that we could easily use to evaluate our own collections as well as for when we go shopping in a bead store as well as at bead shows.

Her presentation answered many questions and maybe made you less anxious about your personal collection of what you had been told was real amber. The main point was “Buyer Beware”…..

 Many vintage pieces of ‘African Amber’ or ‘Copal Amber’ beads found in today’s Trade Bead Market are actually made of “phenol-formaldehyde thermo setting resin – aka “Bakelite”.  Rosanna’s presentation covered the history of Bakelite and information that she has found out about imitation amber beads made for and traded to Africa.  1909 was the patent date for Leo Baekeland’s discovery of a man-made material that looks and feels like amber, but does not have the downfalls of that element: the element is harder than amber, is more durable, and doesn’t craze* with age or heat (*fine cracks caused by oxidation, heat, and/or ultra-violet sunlight).

The biggest question is “Where did these beads initially come from since history shows they have come into the retail market through African Traders.  In the 1800’s the chemical industry in Germany was looking for cheap fertilizers and textiles since they were afraid of running out of natural products such as ivory. (Sound familiar with today’s market?) caused by the explosive population growth in Europe from 1800-2000.  This lead to the scientific world to invent such products as Celluloid (invented in 1856 and smells like mothballs) which was used to create items we used every day: billiard balls, piano keys, car parts, imitation amber, coat buttons, umbrella handles, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, ivory, and even coral. However, it proved to be smelly, very unstable, was flammable, explosive causing many plants to actually blow up! Many of the items made from Celluloid have been replaced by Lucite. But today, Celluloid is still being made in China where environmental regulations are not as closely adhered to, and used to make guitar picks, ping pong balls, and the pearly veneer for accordions and guitar frets. The other invention was Galalith (casein) which is a milk by-product created in 1895 which is cured by formaldehyde.  It is used for slate blackboards, white boards, piano keys, combs, pens, imitation ivory and horn found in vintage jewelry, buttons (as it is easily dyed), cabochons that replaced the normal coral and bone, imitation amber, button hooks, dyed faceted beads that look like Bakelite”. (from Rosanna’s article)

“PF (phenol-formaldehyde thermosetting resins) normally known as Phenolic Resin was used before WWII in industrial history in the production of imitation amber and bead materials.  The element was used as a substitute for hard to find amber and is and was often sold as amber ~ even today, especially in the African Trade Bead industry.  It is easily dyed and carved which gave the artists more creative freedom. Strands of machined and polished amber-yellow beads are found today in the stalls of many African bead sellers as well as in on-line stores and auction sites. They are normally called “African Amber” or “Copal Amber”.  IF the seller is knowledgeable, and knows that they are not real amber, they might admit that the product comes out of Europe, usually Germany, and likely was made between the two world wars. These beads started to be found in American after 1970 with the importation of large, attractive, amber-like beads from Africa” This information is from Rosanna Falabella’s wonderful article in BEADS – the Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers 2016, Vol. 28. This book was offered for sale the night of her presentation and is packed with additional information on this subject.  Examples of her PF beads were also featured on the cover.

Phenol was invented around 1834 from carbolic acid (coal tar) and smells like disinfectant or “Cloroseptic”.  Formaldehyde was invented in 1859 and smells like methanol. PF Resin, also known as Bakelite, was a Belgian-American invention and the first “plastic” from man-made chemicals.  It cannot be melted as it is “thermoset” and is resistant to heat, solvents, and other chemicals. This makes it perfect for electronic insulators and is cheaply created.

 By 1910-1920, the faux amber/ivory inventions were first used for jewelry and costuming. It’s natural amber coloration makes it perfect for the faux element. Today, it is a $13 billion industry and has branched out into the aerospace industry. Even Fortune Magazine wrote an article on this invention in March, 1936. Many products were created in the 1920-1940 period such as elaborately carved buckles and today, even dice. They have found old stock located in Istanbul which is now primarily used to create Islamic Prayer beads sold from Thailand and Egypt. Rosanna showed a picture taken by Floor Kasper (previous BSNC speaker) showing cards of the beads she had previously discovered in her investigation of beads made throughout Europe.

A little-known fact is that European countries entered into the colonization of Africa to stop internal slavery. Prior to 1880, Africa was a fractured land, but by 1913, the involvement of nine countries lead to the development of Africa as it is known today.  The other issue was that Europe went through a deep depression from 1873-1896 and was in desperate need of a new market.

The Sachse bead manufacturer in Jablonec nad Nisou has been credited with being a major trader in imitation amber and ivory for the African Trade Bead industry known as “Negerkorallen”.  As amber became more scarce, and the market and prices rose, the companies realized that they needed to find alternative products ~ PF beads, called “precious art resin”, fit that niche perfectly. It is suggested that many sales went through without letting the buyers know the substitution had been made. The Sachse factory museum has a large display of the products Rosanna discussed to lend proof to her research. There were numerous companies in business between WWI and WWII, but few afterwards when art resin took over the market.  Sadly, there is little if any documentation about the companies that existed throughout Poland, Bohemia and East Prussia, then part of Germany, as the war changed all of that.

 The bead shapes were even altered to fit the African market. The rounded barrel forms were altered; cross drilled so that the beads sat flat against the body, geometric designs were burned into the new faces, and then fully reshaped into the better-known diamonds. (see picture attached that is part of Rosanna’s personal collection). The stability of Phenol Resin beads allowed for extreme cutting and faceting not possible with real amber. Specially formed cross-shaped and diamond “snowflakes” are recognized as being from Mauritania, Mali, and Morocco.

The down point is that the chemicals used proved to not be stable, as the color started to change almost as soon as they were formed.  Sometimes mistakes happen for the good, as many purchasers preferred these new colors, so the bad-changes were then encouraged by heat, age, and chemical treatment.  This evolved into discovery of beads in numerous shades of amber, greens, browns almost to black, and even reds which were incorrectly named “Cherry Amber”. (The real cherry amber is so rare now, that these beads have become quite expensive.)  The downside is that even room temperature can start this change in color and it cannot be reversed.

The largest area of research is to identify the difference between Phenol Resin beads and real amber beads.  This is done by shapes, colors, existence or lack of sparse crackle lines, and density as PF beads are 30% more dense than real amber. Phenol Resin beads can also be found with marbling, surface discoloration, browning caused by age, reaction to oxygen and sunlight but they are not affected by body oils the way real amber is.  Now, there is even “Fakelite” in the African bead trade.  There is a lot of fake amber being sold, but the new beads are not even Phenol Resin beads which now have worth in the bead world, but are being sold as PF beads. The new alkyd resin started to surface around 1950-1960.  They have a strong “odor” and have a lighter opaque lemony yellow color.  These beads are labeled “HIPS” – high impact polystyrene – have actual mold lines as well as surface pitting.  Some Bakelite and Phenol Resin beads have a similar look but it is rare.

Rosanna went into detail about numerous tests you can conduct to verify the content of your beads. The “Simichrome Test” is done with metal polish reacting with the ammonia contained, “409” which also contains 10% ammonia. However, these tests don’t work if the bead has been baked to a darker color.  There are also tests for odors. Rosanna suggests using a diamond grit bead reamer to scratch off a little dust that you can quickly sniff, hot water, a hot pin (hold with pliers), or real flame.  “The various chemical contests give off distinct odors: Bakelite gives off a musty medicinal smell similar to Carbolic Acid; Polystyrene and Alkyd Resin smells like plastic – take a piece of a plastic container that has a recycle marking of #6; Acrylic beads will have no smell or faintly fruity smell; Galalith has the odor of a wet dog or burned milk; Celluloid smells like camphor (Vick’s Vaporub or mothballs; Amber gives off a pleasant pine odor and is sometimes confused with man-made plastic; and natural Horn smells like burning hair.  The best way to learn the odors is to ream or test the beads is by using Rosanna Falabella’s Plastic Bead Identification Kit

written by marilyn peters


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