7 ways to tell Amber from Copal from Plastic
Amber is beautiful. These red, gold and honey colored snapshots of nature's history can hold breathtaking fossils such as salamanders and dinosaur feathers. They're also rare. All these factors mean amber is desirable and expensive, which means people will do what they can to take advantage of the situation. Sometimes people sell plastic and amber's less valuable friend copal as amber.
Let's basically define what were talking about.
Plastic. We all know what this looks like. It's around us all the time. Its usefulness is amazing, and how we waste it is not just annoying and ugly, but also unhealthy. (Seriously, we need a hydrocarbon intervention.) This stuff can be made in minutes, so of course it has the lowest value of these three materials.
Copal. Trees ooze resin to protect themselves from pests and infections. If you ever handled a freshly fallen pine cone, then you've experienced this sticky goo first hand... and right hand... and left hand. Copal is tree resin that has been buried for thousands of years. Pressure and heat from sediments and other processes have hardened and polymerized the resin.
Amber. Copal that stays buried and doesn't decay for millions of years becomes amber. It is considered fossilized tree resin at this point. There are a lot of ways to destroy copal, so amber is relatively rare.
These three materials can look nearly identical. Paying hundreds of dollars for something that cost less than a dollar and less than 10 minutes to make just doesn't sound like a good time. So, if you're like us, then you might feel some apprehension when looking to buy amber.
Here are some guidelines for identifying amber from copal from plastic. These tests will get increasingly destructive to the piece you're trying to identify.
Look At It.
Amber and copal are made by trees out where trees, plants, insects and other creatures and processes happen. They are the result of a little bit of chaos, and therefore they have imperfections. This is what you're looking for. You want imperfections. People make plastic, and they tend toward efficiency to maximize investments. They tend not to introduce imperfections to their creations because that takes more time. Those who do introduce imperfections repeat the same imperfections over and over. If each piece of amber looks the same or you see the exact same imperfection in every piece, then you know you're looking at a fake. A seller might also mix real amber in with copal and plastic and charge you amber prices, so be on your toes.
Ask probing questions of the seller. The more questions he or she is able to answer the more reputable the seller. Questions you might ask might include: what are the inclusions in it, where the amber is from, What natural processes created it, who carved or formed it, etc. Knowing the answers to these questions will help you evaluate the answers. The internet is very helpful, but it doesn't know everything. Speak with multiple sellers before making a purchase.
Also, if you're new at something, then it's not a good idea to contradict a seller. They might actually know what they're talking about better than you do. Remember, you're attempting to learn about what they offer and assess their competence. You're not an enforcer. If you don't agree with them, just walk away. If you later find out they were right about that thing, then you haven't made yourself an idiot.
It's still true: if it looks to good to be true, then it's probably not amber. It'll take some practice to know what different kinds of amber, copal and plastic should sell for. If you come across some "amber" that is selling for plastic prices, then the chances are you're paying for plastic.
Amber can temporarily store static electricity. Pretty cool, right? This little scientific fact can be useful. Wrap the item in cloth and rub it with the cloth for about a minute. Next, you'll need a strand of hair. It doesn't have to be your own, but it should be about as long as your finger. (If you are hair challenged and too shy to ask a stranger for a pluck of their hair, a little strip of tissue paper should work, too.) Once you've acquired the strand, hold it up to the alleged amber. If the hair is attracted to the amber, then you have amber. If the alleged amber just gets a bit sticky, you have copal. If neither of these is true, then you might still have copal or you might have plastic. Maybe you want to try this test a few times to be sure.
Another cool and useful science fact: amber and copal float in salt water. Here's the recipe: in a container big enough for the item you want to test, stir 35 grams (7 teaspoons) of salt into 300ml of water until the salt dissolves. Toss the item into the water. No need to make a splash with it. It's not a contest. If it floats then you have hardened tree resin. If it sinks you have plastic. Rinse the item with fresh water to remove the salt. If the item being tested has metal attached to it, then all bets are off.
As mentioned above, there are a lot of ways to destroy copal. One of them is alcohol. (Who hasn't been destroyed by alcohol? Amiright?) Drip just a drop or two of alcohol on the least visible part the piece. If nothing at all happens then you have amber or maybe plastic. If the alcohol becomes cloudy, then it is dissolving copal. If it stays clear, wipe it off with your fingers. If your fingers or the item become sticky, then it was dissolving copal. Smell the copal and your fingers for maybe a honey fragrance. It's a nice smell, and you might as well get a nice experience out this destructive act. Rinse the copal with fresh water to remove the alcohol.
Yes, burn it. Time to make a sacrifice. Probably best not to jump right to this test. Some people just take fire straight to the item, and some heat a needle and press the needle into the item. Hot Tip: A very hot needle keeps the damage localized. You're really interested in the smell. If it smells like pine trees, then it's either amber or copal. Amber's fragrance is stronger than copal's fragrance. If it smells like burning plastic, then it's burning plastic. Chuck whatever you have in fresh water to stop the reaction.
Hopefully you have something left after these tests that you'll enjoy for many years.
Got any tips of your own for identifying amber and copal and plastic? Leave some comments below.