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Partially reprinted with permission by Susan Aber Ward and Garry Platt, edited by Paleo Direct, Inc.

Copal is not the fossilized, hardened resin that is known as amber, but rather an immature recent resin.  Increasingly, copal is being offered for sale via the online auction services, fossil dealers' websites, gem shows, and shops, misrepresented as "amber."  The commercial value of amber is related to its scarcity, age, inclusions of extinct species, and durability.   True fossil amber is MORE VALUABLE than copal.  Unfortunately, some dealers are more preoccupied with high economic returns, rather than whether or not their resin is fossil or recent.  Fortunately, there are tests that can be done to differentiate the two.  The most deceptive and malicious dealers will try to impress uninformed prospective buyers as they spout all sorts of seemingly-impressive but irrelevant scientific garbage, ignoring the simple facts and obvious age differences in amber versus copal.  These fraudulent dealers will attempt to convince naive and trusting buyers that copal IS amber when this couldn't be further from the truth.   A warning to buyers of COPAL WHO THINK THEY ARE GETTING AMBER - unlike true fossil amber, copal will craze deeply on the surface as early as only a few years when the volatiles (turpenes) from the original resin evaporate.  

It is NOT rare to find spectacular types and concentrations of inclusions in copal - it IS rare to find the same in true fossil amber.  If the same inclusions were found in true fossil amber, the value of the specimen would be exceedingly higher in price than the same specimen in copal.  The problem is, you cannot even compare inclusions because most of the life-forms found in true fossil amber are now EXTINCT whereas the types of inclusions found in copal are MODERN and still living today!  Often, naive collectors fall victim to dishonest fossil dealers and are suckered into a higher price for a piece of copal that is loaded with fascinating inclusions as they confuse the rarity of these inclusions with genuine fossil amber.  Despite what appears to be valuable, copal is worth only a small fraction of what an equal specimen in genuine fossil amber would sell for.   

Copal, an immature and controversial resin, is a much younger form of tree resin compared to the prehistoric nature of true fossil amber.  Columbia, South America has extensive deposits of copal which is frequently sold as amber.  CARBON 14 TESTS UNDERTAKEN ON COLOMBIAN COPAL HAVE SHOWN IT IS LESS THAN 250 YEARS OLD!  Madagascar and Kenya also have highly fossiliferous copal mines.  Their age is likely to be roughly the same as the Colombian deposits, if not younger.  There are no known true fossil amber deposits in Colombia so if a piece of "amber" is being sold with a source of "Colombia", it is COPAL and is NOT REAL FOSSIL AMBER. 

There are several types of copal from different geographic regions and trees other than Colombia.  Zanzibar copal from East Africa was possibly produced by the Trachylobium verrucasum (also known as Hymenaea verrucosa), while Kauri copal from New Zealand was produced by the Kauri pine, Agathis australis.  Sierra Leone and Congo copal are both from a leguminous tree, Copaifera guibourthiana.  Manila copal, produced by trees in the genus Agathis, is found in Indonesia and the Philippines.  Dammar resin was produced by dipterocarpaceous trees in southern Asia, i.e., Malaya and Sumatra.  Various tropical trees, such as Hymenaea courbaril or Hymenae protea, produce Colombian and Brazilian copal.  Major deposits of copal are produced from tropical legume and araucarian trees (conifers indigenous today to South America and Australia) and are found in tropical or wet temperate regions where these resin producing trees still exist.  Large pieces of Colombian copal have been illegally imported into Poland and then sold as Baltic material.

8 Tests to Identify COPAL VERSUS AMBER

There are a number of simple tests that can be carried out on amber to check its authenticity.  More sophisticated and complex tests are possible but they require access to laboratory equipment.  These more complex tests include Refraction Index, Precise Specific Gravity and Melting Point.  The latest and most decisive contribution to the chemistry of succinite and other fossil resins has been made by pyrolysis gas chromatography in combination with mass spectrometry.  This technique has been used create the first exclusive chemical classification of fossil resins.

For the layperson with no special equipment, the following eight tests are adequate.  When examining a specimen you should try at least 3 of the following methods detailed here.  If the item in question fails any one of the tests, it could well mean the piece is not true amber.

(Test 1) HARDNESS.

Amber has a hardness on the Moh’s scale in the region of 2 - 3.  Using appropriate scratch sticks it should be reasonably straightforward to test the sample under question.

(Test 2) HOT NEEDLE.

Heat a needlepoint in a flame until glowing red and then push the point into the sample for testing.  With copal, the needle melts the material quicker than amber and omits a light fragrant odor.  Amber when tested, does not melt as quickly as the copal and omits sooty fumes.


Copal will dissolve in acetone.  This test can be done by dispensing the acetone from an eyedropper onto a clean surface of the test specimen.  Place one drop on the surface of the test piece and allow to evaporate, then place a second drop on the same area.  Copal will become tacky while amber will remain unaffected by contact with acetone.

(Test 4) UV

Copal under a short-wave UV light shows hardly any color change.  Amber fluoresces a pale shade of blue.


Rub the specimen vigorously on a soft cloth.  True amber may omit a faint resinous fragrance but copal may actual begin to soften and the surface become sticky.  Amber will also become heavily charged with static electricity and will easily pick up small pieces of loose paper.

(TEST 6) FLOTATION (Specific Gravity)

Mix 23gms of standard table salt with 200ml of lukewarm water.  Stir until completely dissolved.  Amber should float in such a mixture and some copals together with various plastics will sink.  Regular amber often has a specific gravity of 1.05 to 1.10 (where 1 is the same as water).  Copal looks similar, but has a lower specific gravity of 1.03 to 1.08.  A specific gravity of above 1.0 will cause the object to sink in fresh water.


Infrequently amber contains Flora or Fauna inclusions.  Correctly identifying the trapped Insect or plant should be an excellent indicator of a piece’s authenticity.  Most inclusions from ancient amber are of species that are now extinct or significantly changed.  Frequently present in Baltic amber are tiny stellate hairs which are release by oak buds during their early growth and some time after,


With a sharp knife try to shave off a tiny piece of the amber from an unobtrusive section. Real amber fractures and splinters. plastic and polymers actual cut and tiny shaved pieces can be removed without any splintering of the material.

NEXT TO PAGE  3 - "Fake Amber Fossil Inclusions"

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