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PALEO DIRECT

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FAKE AMBER & COPAL

The issues surrounding genuine FOSSIL AMBER are two-fold and will be discussed as such: 

TOPIC 1 COPAL is NOT TRUE FOSSIL AMBER but a much younger form of tree resin.  There IS a difference (age alone most obviously) and it can be identified.  Furthermore, copal contains inclusions of modern living life-forms whereas true fossil amber contains inclusions mostly of EXTINCT prehistoric life.

TOPIC 2 - Genuine amber is a resin so it is easy to fake in appearance.  The "amber" may be plastic with fake artificially placed organisms inside as inclusions OR, the amber may be real but the inclusions are faked - a problem in today's amber market.  This is true with any especially rare inclusions (flowers, lizards, scorpions, bird feathers, mammal hair, reptilian skin, and blood filled ticks).  INCLUSIONS OF ANY VERTEBRATES SHOULD BE HIGHLY SUSPECT AND AUTHENTICATED!   

Before we discuss the above points, we will first look at what exactly IS fossil amber.

What is AMBER

by Garry Platt (reprinted with permission), edited by Paleo Direct, Inc.

Amber is the prehistoric resin of trees.  The resin has gone through a number of changes over millions of years.  The result of this metamorphosis is an exceptional gem with extraordinary properties.  It is exploited and used by both craftsmen and scientist.

It is probably only from the Carboniferous onwards that land based plant species evolved capable of producing resin which subsequently turned into amber.  From that time on, various tree species have produced different deposits of amber.  

TREE SOURCES

The worlds two current major deposits of true fossil amber, Dominican Republic and Baltic, had two separate tree types which produced the original resin.  The Baltic source tree has been named Pinites succinifer.  In appearance, it would have probably resembled a pine or spruce tree and the forests in which it grew were sub tropical in nature.   It may not have looked unfamiliar today.  From amongst the numerous inclusions found in Baltic amber other trees species have been identified as being present.  Some of the trees which must have grown in the ancient amber forest are Cycadacea (Ferns & Palms), Coniferae (Cypresses, Cedars, Pine, Thujas), Juniperinae (Junipers), Fagaceae (Beeches and Oaks), Salicaceae (Willows), Santalaceae (Sandalwoods), Magnoliaeae (Magnolias), Lauraceae (Laurels) and Aceraceae (Maples).

The Dominican Republic resin tree was Hymenaea protera for which had its origins in Africa.  Close relatives of this tree (Hymenaea verrucosa) still exist within the sub continent of Africa and on some of the West Indian islands. 

Many of the major amber deposits have had their tree source identified. Key amongst them are:

Country / Species Family

Alaska / Agathis Undetermined plant family

Baltic / Pinites succinifer

Burma / Nummulites biaritzensis

Canada - Cedar Lake / Agathis Undetermined plant family

Dominican Republic / Hymenaea protera

Germany - Bitterfield / Cupressospermum saxonicum (Now disputed)

Mexico - Chiapas / Hymenaea Undetermined plant family

Middle East / Agathis Undetermined plant family

Romania - Colti / Sequoioxylon gypsaceum

In nearly all of these cases, the climate under which these trees grew was sub tropical. The climatic conditions where amber is now found may have changed dramatically since the time of the resin bearing trees.  The Baltic for instance is no longer sub tropical.

It is interesting to note that few potential amber forming forests now exist.  The North Island of New Zealand had in the earlier part of this year one of the most extensive resin bearing forests in the world.  This location produced the famous kuari gum and the tree responsible for these massive deposits was Agathis australis.  Few of these trees now remain of the once huge forests.

 

AMBER VERSUS COPAL

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

Copal is not the fossilized, hardened tree 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 best analogy is the comparison of a modern horse skull to a fossil horse skull from the Ice Age.  The species are the same, the chemical composition is the same, and the molecular structure is identical BUT there is a MAJOR difference in rarity and value and it is defined by AGE.  

The commercial value of amber is related to its scarcity, age, inclusions of extinct species, and durability.  True fossil amber is considerably 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 fraudsters 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.

(Test 3)  SOLUBILITY

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.

(Test 5)  FRICTION

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.

(TEST 7)  INCLUSIONS

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,

(TEST 8)  KNIFE CUT

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.

 

FAKE AMBER FOSSIL INCLUSIONS

Faking inclusions of amber has been a major cottage industry since the earliest times.  This perhaps reached its height in the early 1900’s and a major source was from New Zealand.  The North Island has some major deposits of Kaori Gum, and at the turn of the 19th century some was used to fake and imitate true amber.  The digging of Kaori Gum was such a major industry the workers even had their own newspaper; ‘The Gum Diggers Gazette’.

The Kaori Gum would be melted gently and suitable inclusions placed into the matrix, this was frequently some kind of colorful insect.  Color is always a dead give away of a bogus amber fossil.  Truly ancient amber fossils have no color pigmentation left at all and are usually monotone.  However, beetle color is often an effect of light refraction, i.e. the light being broken into its spectral elements, the resin however prevents this. 

One of the most clever methods employed involves the use of a true piece of amber.  The amber has a section cut from one end of the piece.  A hole was then drilled into the main block.  Inside this cavity was placed the animal which was in fact alive at the time of faking.  The creature was then surrounded by molten resin and the previously sawn off section placed back in position and glued with the same liquid resin.  The result is externally a perfect piece of amber which passed all tests for true amber. 

Since copal can be easily melted, one of the most prevalent scams to watch out for today is the creation of "rare inclusions" by drilling a piece of amber or copal, placing the object in the hole and filling with molten copal.  The surface is then ground and polished down to blend the side of the hole with the outer surface.  Fakes made in this manner using lizards, exotic insects, etc., have sold for thousands of dollars to unsuspecting collectors!  Use common sense.  If you see something that appears too good to be true, then it probably is.  Dishonest dealers have sold fake included copal and amber for thousands of dollars so do not let price alone, be your guide!