Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Amber


Copal - tree resin (coniferous or deciduous species), occurring in different varieties in the subtropical countries. Copal was a popular material for jewellery and figurines among many peoples of the world. Currently, it is also used in professional jewelry.

The term copal comes from a language of Aztesc and means resin juices. But kauri copal or Manila copal are quite different from copal found in Colombia or South-Eastern Asia. Zanzibar copal is also quite different. Copal from Mizuni (Japan) is referred to as amber and contains many organic inclusions, just as the copal from northern Madagascar. Since 1981, collectors have also been familiar with copal from the Dominican Republic, found in Cotui, Bayaguana region. The age of this copal has been radiocarbon dated to be only 300 years, although other Dominican resins (also described as copal) from Bayaguana have been attributed the age of 15–17 Ma.

There is an on going discussion in science literature on what should be referred to as copal. Age is the most frequent criterion. Some place copal’s age between 10,000 and 5 million years and therefore classify Africa’s Pliocene resins as copal as well. Others would much rather use theterm copal to describe resins from the last million years  or from the Pleistocene atmost. According to D. Schlee, the term copal is even used for a group of resins that are less than 250 years old. This name is sometimes used interchangeably with the name "resin" to describe both contemporary copal and that older than the Pleistocene. On the other hand, in New Zealand a Palaeogene fossil resin is referred toas kauri copal. Some believe that until there is a precise definition of copal which is not related to a specific age it is best to use the convention of applying the name copal to Pleistocene resins which are less than one million years old.

The properties of copal, including its lower melting point, lower hardnessand good solubility, differ from the properties of Baltic amber and therefore help in  identifying copal. A few drops of acetone make the surface of copal sticky. It can also be rubbed with a cotton pad soaked in ether which will leave a matt smear or stick to the surface. It is much different with amber: rubbed with ether, it will only show slight changes on its surface after two weeks. Copal is colourless, with its surface layer sometimes darkened. For production purposes, copal can be aged to become light yellow and light brown. The German market contains a wide range of products made of copal from the Southern Hemisphere which is an excellent imitation of amber, especially when an extra layer of varnish is applied to it properly.



The most widespread copals are named after either their locality or their parent tree:


  • Colombian copal comes from various species of broadleaf trees of the ge­nus Hymenaea, of the tropical family Leguminosae, similar to acacia. Colom­bian copal is found at a depth of 1 m in the Andes, in the regions of Santander and Boyaca (the northern part of the Cordillera Occidental).
  • Copal from Manila (the capital city of the Philippines) comes both the Philippines and from Indonesia. It is the resin of the Agathis alba tree species. The genus Agathis belongs to the family Araucariaceae, typical only of the flora of the Southern Hemisphere.
  • Kauri copal is the resin of the Agathis australis tree species. The genus Agathis is the most widespread coniferous tree in the tropical zone (Malaysia) and subtropical zone (New Zealand). Its largest finds have been recorded on the western coast of New Zealand. This is an area where the Araucariaceae have been growing for thousands of years. Resin can ooze from a wounded trunk of a kauri tree for a long time, accumulating a mass of ca. 250 kg. Some give the name of the kauri copal of New Zealand only to Paleogene or Neoge­ne fossil resins, while kauri gum refers to Pleistocene resin. Kauri gum had been exported to England and the USA for varnish production since ca. 1840. As recently as in 1980, 50 tonnes of kauri gum were exported as an ingredient for high-quality varnish for musical instruments.
  • African copal most often comes from the species Hymenaea verrucosa, but the genera Copaifera and Daniellia are also mentioned as its origin. Trees of the genus Hymenaea grow on the eastern coast of Africa, in Angola and Madagascar. In Madagascar, very young resin with plenty of organic inclusions is quite common.


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