Although there are many imitation amber beads on the market masquerading as genuine amber, the real deal can be found. There are many tests available for amber, unfortunately, not all of them work correctly and we must rely on the word of the seller that the amber passed its tests. Bidding on beads by photos is difficult, so here are some easy ways to guess if amber beads may be genuine or not:
1) If the beads all the *exact* same color, there is a good chance they are imitaions. Real antique amber comes in all different colors, with variations of color even within one bead. While it is possible to have beads with similar colors (often a lighter, opaque color mixed in), beware of beads that appear to have exactly the same size, shape, and color. Look for inclusions and bits of variation in the beads. Some imitaions do have swirls of a lighter color, but it tends to look like swirled colors found in plastic. African amber can be either completely opaque or totally translucent.
2) Shapes and sizes vary considerably from very small to very large with no perfectly shaped bead. Trying to match beads is a difficult task as they always look slightly different. Genuine African amber almost never comes in special shapes, such as squares, perfect cylinders, spheres, etc.
3) Antique African amber is slightly softer than Baltic amber, so expect the beads to have some natural chips, often worn smooth with age, but chips and dings none the less. Perfect beads often mean imitation, but not always.
4) Antique African amber usually has a matte patina, but is occasionally rather shiny. Wear patterns from being strung with other beads are very important; often beads will have very large holes and the beads will have a greater diameter than width, giving them a wafer-like shape.
5) If the price is super low and the seller sells a lot of the same beads, it is most likely imitation amber. Genuine African amber is old and old beads command more money. Occasionally you may find a deal with someone who does not recognize the treasure that they have; happy hunting!
Antique Coral Beads
The main origin for most antique coral was the Mediterranean Sea. It was often traded to countries in exchange for spices and other items that were highly valued in Europe. Italy was well known for its coral. This guide focuses on North African coral beads and Yemeni Coral beads. In Yemen, coral was traded in branch form and it was shaped into beads by the local tribes. Most Yemeni coral beads are well worn and range in color from salmon pink to dark orange/red. Although some have more of a rounded barrel shape, most Yemeni beads tend to have a disk-like or cylindrical shape. The beads often have white matrix. Occasionally one will find beads that appear to be faceted. The facets were where the bead was sanded into the desired shape. Through the years, the facets would be worn away and a more smooth bead would result. Coral was valued in Yemen for its ability to protect (often from the evil eye) and heal. It was often paired with silver and collected as a form of wealth. North Africans, the Berber tribes in particular, tended to favor more organic shapes. Branch coral beads were very popular. Bordering the Mediterranean Sea, North Africans (especially Moroccans and Algerians) had excellent access to coral. Often coral would wash up along the beaches after storms. Branch coral was painstakingly drilled by hand from both ends to achieve a long, organic tube-shaped bead. North Africans prefered to string coral with amber, silver, amaxonite, and shells, or to set formed cabochons in silver and enamel jewelry (as seen in Algerian Kabyle Berber work). North African coral beads tend to be either in branch form, more roundly formed (than Yemeni beads), or large and chunky. While North African coral beads come in colors from orange to the highly valued ox blood red, it tends to be be a bit darker in color and not have white matrix. North African coral tends to have a richness in color that surpasses most Yemeni coral beads; it is slightly more translucent than its more opaque cousin, Yemeni coral. THERE ARE ALWAYS EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE! It takes years of practice to learn the often subtle differences, and no expert is correct all of the time! Antique Moroccan, and to some extent, Algerian coral beads often have a special patina (commonly known as ambergris) that accumulates in the cracks, holes, and niches of the beads. The Berbers were known for rubbing incense onto their jewelry for both the pleasant fragrance and for protection against the ever-present evil eye. This incense was usually a mix of musk, attar of roses, cloves, olive or argan oil, and other spices. Over time, the incense was rubbed with fingers and made its way into the tiny areas of the jewelry were it created a rich, semi-translucent, dark brown patina. Even now, when rubbed, this patina often produces a faintly pleasant incence scent. Yemeni coral beads lack this patina. Antique coral beads from both areas can be found in every state from highly polished to completely matte. Wearing your antique coral beads on your skin will bring out their luster more.