Amber is fossilised resin (or gum) from some types of plants from prehistoric forests. The earliest known piece of Amber comes from the carboniferous period, when large dragonflies roamed the skies. The best ambers come from the Baltic and the Dominican Republic.
It is formed when the resin from trees get buried in the soil, and after millions of years of a process which involves oxidation and polymerization. It hardens and looks like a gem, but it is an organic substance, so it is not a mineral.
When it drips down a tree trunk, it can trap debris such as leafs, seeds, feathers, insects or even small reptiles and amphibians!
Amber has been used by mankind for thousands of years, even before the ice age. It was used as beads and is still used as beads and jewellery today.
What is copal?
Copal, otherwise known as young amber is not fossilised. It is a younger form of tree resin. Sadly, many auctions offer copal but is said to be amber, and is sold for the price of amber, which is much more valuable. There is a difference in them, so it can be identified. It is mainly found in New Zealand, Japan, the Dominican Republic, Columbia and Madagascar. Columbian and Madagascan copal is usually not older than 200 years. Madagascan copal is found 1 or 2 meters below living copal trees from roots of trees that may have lived thousands of years earlier.
There are a number of practical tests that can be carried out on amber to check to see if it is not hoaxed.
When checking to see if the specimen you should test at minimum 3 of the methods explained below. If the specimen fails a single one of the tests, it could mean the piece is not real amber, but copal or a plastic.
Amber has hardness on the hardness scale is normally in the region of 2 - 3. With suitable scratch sticks it should be simple enough to test the sample. You can even use a fingernail to scratch the sample.
A simple non-destructive test that you can do yourself is to clean and taste the specimen. Carefully wash it with soap and water, then with just water. This should leave a clean specimen ready for this test. Lick the specimen several times, allowing the delicate taste to linger in your mouth. It should be extremely delicate. Real amber has almost no taste to it at all.
Gat a fairly shark knife and try to carve off a small piece of the amber from a more insignificant section, e.g. on the bottom or where there are no insulations visible. Real amber breaks up and chips, while plastic and copal can be cut and small bits can be removed without any part fracturing.
Copal put under a UV light will show hardly any change in colour. Amber will look a sallow shade of blue.
A HOT NEEDLE
Get a needle and put it in a flame until it glows red, and then drive the point into the sample to test it. If it is copal, the hot needle will melt the copal fairly quickly and it leaves a light aromatic scent. They melt copal in some churches, so you might have smelt it there before. When you test amber it does not melt half as quickly as the copal and sooty fumes come off the specimen.
You should stroke the piece forcefully on a cloth. Authentic amber should leave a faint resin like aroma while copal may start to weaken and the cloth could become a little bit sticky. Amber can also become charged with static electricity and can pick up small pieces of newspaper ripped up.