Amber beads

A developing story of Moroccan trade by Sarah Corbett

Since December last year (2014) not a day passes without an e mail or message from potential clients asking me for kilos of amber beads.
With my frequent visits to Morocco, this is of course, no surprise.
The progression of the amber situation is, however, a very interesting one to recount.
I have for the last few months decided to decline any requests to source amber beads in large quantities in Morocco. The price of course is prohibitive and makes trade tricky, but this is not the reason why I will no longer partake in the trade for kilos of amber.

For some time, there have been people from all around the world in Marrakech searching for the elusive fossilized resin. Initially, when the prices began to rise the Amber dealers spoke of Chinese customers coming to buy as much as was available. This was the case for some months, and the (gold) resin rush began…..

On various trips, when making enquiries about purchasing large quantities of amber, I found I was doing a circuit which was simultaneously being trodden by other ‘prospectors’ for amber.
On one particular occasion by two Swiss , two Yemeni, and one American man.
We all saw one another going to the same dealers. After meeting the Yemeni men in three shops, I decided to ask them where they had already visited, as they were clearly buying as well. They offered to buy any amber I could secure, at an increase of 10 Moroccan dirhams per gram on whatever I paid for the stock. I asked them who they were buying for, they replied for a factory in China.

The previous production of Faux beads and gems in China led me to think that there may be a connection between the sudden frenzy to buy amber at any price it seemed, and the sharp rise in the price per gram worldwide.

In Marrakech I was offered, once during a trip in the company of guests and once after the trip, kilos of amber beads.
These, in the first moments, look the part and are strung on loops of blue and white nylon rope – not the usual bead dealer stranding material.
When hanging in a bunch on a wall they make an impressive display….especially when the whole world is thirsty for this ‘amber nectar’.
As ever, I carefully studied the beads..
When I look at a piece of jewellery or a bead I look for the things which are wrong and, if I don’t find any, then I am delighted.
These are my observations.
The beads are golden, slightly opaque butterscotch amber in type.
The beads feel dry and desiccated to some extent, as if all of the oils have been leached from them.
The surface texture is too uniform, too smooth, no significant patina
The beads are of regular sizes
The perforations are large and uniform in size and shape, perfectly circular, with no wear at all
The only test available to me was heat. I was eventually able to convince a trader (who truly believed that the beads were genuine, and had bought them as such) to allow me to needle test. The aroma we would hope for is there, but my only way to describe it is weaker than usual.
I asked to purchase one bead as an example, I was told it was available by the strand and very pricey.
I asked to take pictures, and again this wasn’t a popular request!
I continued to ask about the beads, and they were purchased from a West African bead dealer.
There have been a few batches coming in to an amber drought, and getting snapped up at around 180dh per gram, by dealers who are constantly looking for stock to supply the worldwide frenzy of demand.
My instincts told me that something was amiss. I have on my subsequent trips managed to take pictures of these beads , with a genuine bead alongside for comparison.
The pictures I believe show everything which I suspected about these supposed amber beads

My thoughts on the situation after careful consideration are this.
I believe that these are recent production.
I believe that there has been a development which allows genuine amber to be somehow powdered or chipped and mixed with a natural resin, then remoulded around a mandrel.
I believe that at the point where the market price has peaked and the resources of the real thing are sparse, that a fabricated product, which is almost good enough to deceive those who are not of the very observational and aware mind that our trade requires, has emerged.

This is the first wave of this product, as with the chevrons from China in the last decade I am sure that the product will evolve to appear closer and closer to the real deal.
Amber was always a difficult and specialist area for identification. Now I believe that we must all be extra cautious..

I would welcome the assistance of all amber experts among the bead and jewellery world to analyse the product and together to understand this step in bead and amber production.

The following pics show examples of the beads, and full strands of them mixed into genuine amber beads.

Picture 1: The four beads on the left of the picture are the new variety. they have sharp unworn edges and perfect circular perforations. For comparison the one bead on the right is a genuine old worn Amber bead

Picture 2: shows the same selection of beads. Note the crisp edges of the beads and the sliced style of the shapes.

Picture 3: shows a selection of the new style beads mixed onto a strands weighing 1 kilo each.

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