If you’re familiar with amber jewelry, you may have come across the mention of copal. While they both can look the same, there are several differences between the two gems. So what exactly is the difference, and why is there debate surrounding it? Below, Aistre for Amber will look into both copal and amber, including what their differences are and how to identify them with 5 simple tests.
What is Amber?
Amber is the prehistoric resin of trees. This resin has gone through many changes over millions of years to get to the state it’s in. This fossilized version of tree resin is much sought after and coveted by both gem sellers and scientists alike. The process it goes through leaves this gem with extraordinary properties, such as static electricity, and its colors are determined by which tree the fossilized resin came from and what kinds of materials were captured within it.
What is Copal?
While copal is also made from tree resin, it’s not nearly as old as amber. It’s a problem when sellers at online auctions and gem shows try to sell the younger copal as amber. If copal is tree resin, then they aren’t really lying, right? Wrong. What makes amber have the demand and value that it does is all in its age. Copal is softer and does not have the same properties as amber because it hasn't had enough time to fossilize. Copal resin most often comes from the aromatic copal tree, and can be burned as incense.
How are they Similar?
Amber and copal are both made of tree resin. Both can have materials caught within them from the time the resin seeped out of the tree, such as plant material, insects, and other debris. Both are an organic gem, meaning they are relatively soft when compared to other gemstones. This means that if you have jewelry made of amber or copal, you need to be particularly careful with it. For example, you wouldn't want to wear an amber or copal ring while gardening or doing the dishes!
How to Tell the Difference between Copal and Amber
Let’s go over 5 ways to identify whether the stone you have in your hand is amber or copal:
- Hardness - The first test you can do to tell if you're looking at real amber is to test the hardness of the stone. Using appropriate scratch sticks (or your fingernail) to test it on the Mohs Hardness Scale, you should be able to tell quickly if you have real amber or copal. Amber has a hardness of 2-3, while copal is around 1.5. This means that copal is much easier to visibly damage with just your fingernail.
- UV Test – If you place the gem in question under a UV light, you will instantly be able to tell what you have. If the stone has no color change at all under the light, you have copal. If the stone changes to a pale shade of blue under the UV light, you have amber.
- Friction - This test can be easily done at home. Rub the mystery stone vigorously with a soft cloth, preferably made of wool. If it’s true amber, it will start to give off a resinous smell. Amber will also gain a static electric charge from this test, and can easily pick up small bits of paper or hair if placed slightly above them. If it’s copal, the friction created will cause the stone to become soft and sometimes even sticky to the touch.
- Flotation - Simply create a mixture of table salt and lukewarm water. If the gem you have is amber, it should float when put into this solution. If your gem is copal, especially if mixed with some plastic, it will sink in this saltwater mixture.
- Hot Needle - This test has you heat up a needle and poke the gem in question. If the gem starts to melt slightly where poked with the hot needle, you have copal. If the gem does not melt as quickly and starts to put off a slight sooty, piney scent, then you have amber. If you choose to do this test, make sure it’s in a less obvious location on the gem, such as on the back of a set piece.
As you look into buying amber jewelry, it’s smart to go with a trusted dealer and do your research. If you come across someone selling amber and the price seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Some dealers have been flooding the market with fake amber for decades and are in it to make a quick profit. There’s a reason that true amber is often pricier than other gems, and that's because it’s a rare find due to the fossilization process and time it takes for the amber to get to the state that it’s in.
If you want to learn more about determining whether or not you have fake amber, check out Aistre for Amber’s other blog here!