Copal, amber and…copal amber?

Strolling past the booths of an outdoor craft festival recently, I stopped to admire a chunky beaded necklace labeled “Copal Amber,” the word “amber” in bold. “I thought copal was different from amber,” I said to the man behind the display. “Younger, isn’t it?”

Moroccan necklace of silver, coral, copal, enamel, coins, glass, shell, cotton, plastic and buttons (Desert Jewels exhibit, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Moroccan necklace of silver, coral, copal, enamel, coins, glass, shell, cotton, plastic and buttons (Desert Jewels exhibit, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The vendor grunted. “If you call thousands of years young,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “Thousands vs. millions. It’s the same material though.”

I smiled and told him I knew some gemologists who would disagree. He looked at me more closely. “Nobody here cares whether it’s amber or copal,” he said, looking around at the unsuspecting shoppers strolling by in the sunshine. “They’re just looking for something pretty.”

Why should they care if they don’t know to ask? I can pretty much guarantee if one of them expressed interest in this “copal amber” necklace, this guy was not going to volunteer the information that the copal beads in his necklaces weren’t really amber.

Necklace of Baltic amber, copal and gold (AnitasArtJewelry at Etsy)

Necklace of Baltic amber, copal and gold (AnitasArtJewelry at Etsy)

Let’s get something straight: Copal is not amber. Labeling it amber is a fraudulent claim. In the world of geology – and gemology – the difference between material that’s been in the ground for thousands of years vs. millions can be pretty significant. Copal and amber, for example, are both resins, but copal is far more common than fossil amber and, therefore, doesn’t have the same commercial value.

You’ll often find copal (labeled amber) with amber-like inclusions on sites like eBay; some of those inclusions would be rare and quite valuable in real amber. In copal, not so much. Where jewelry is concerned, copal is often not as durable as amber – more likely to develop surface crazing after a few years.

Necklace of Guinean copal with Tibetan amber bead (All-Necklaces.com)

Necklace of Guinean copal with Tibetan amber bead (All-Necklaces.com)

At the “copal amber” booth, I mentioned something I’d seen at the Tucson Gem Shows, where the copal vs. amber controversy is old hat. The bored disdain vanished and the vendor stepped closer. Suddenly, it was like I was at the AGTA show, wearing my little press badge. He pointed out that his actual amber jewelry—indicating some necklaces with the familiar transparent honey-colored beads—reflected the price difference because, of course, “it’s older and more valuable.” Uh-huh.

I know most folks who make jewelry with copal already know this, but allow me to suggest to those who don’t: Label your copal “copal.” Follow the example of the lovely and properly-labeled copal-and-amber necklaces pictured above (and sold on Etsy and All Necklaces). You can mention  copal’s unique characteristics – color, weight, price benefit – even its similarities to amber, but you shouldn’t have to call any material something it’s not in order to sell it. One more thing: It’s dangerous to assume every customer who finds you online or at a public fair will be uninformed.

To jewelry lovers who, like me, find yourselves attracted to unusual materials, I have another piece of advice. If you see a word or a material you don’t recognize, ask. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated until you get a straight answer. When you buy something at a craft show, get the contact information of the vendor and make sure it says on the receipt exactly what it said on the display label. As in “copal amber.” Just in case you get home, Google it, and find yourself with a case of buyer’s remorse.

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15 comments for “Copal, amber and…copal amber?

  1. December 6, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    I grew up near the Baltic and on two ocassions found tiny pieces of amber. I was taught by my parents to rub the amber against my sleeve and hold a tiny piece of paper near it, if it attracted it then it was amber – is that actually true?

  2. Marly Harris
    January 17, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    We had an interesting discussion about Amber vs. Copal this morning on Jewelcollect. It turns out that I have the same huge prayer-beads necklace as another member and we shared jpegs of our jewels. A gem expert identified the beads as Copal. I’ve been wondering about this gigantic necklace for years. The beads are so large, I assumed they were Bakelite or plastic/resin. Here’s a link to the image: http://s946.photobucket.com/albums/ad306/marlylovesjewels/?action=view&current=prayerbeads003.jpg

  3. didi
    March 18, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    hello
    I have just bought some lovely beads large chunky “copal amber” and full of bubbles and pops! in clear golden beads…being not unsure of their authenticity
    i questioned the seller and carried out the ACID TEST as advised with denatured alchol as this did not make the bead go sticky but it did take the colour out! I questioned the seller again who had taken this up with his supplier in the meantime and as advised for a second time to set fire to the bead it would melt if plastic but stay hard if copal? The bead did stay hard and only burnt on the outside HOW EVER It had a beautiful smell Now I am confused the beads have a plastic feel but dont act like plastic they smell like incense….soooo what have i got? I know about burning copal for ritual events or in the home…help!
    thank you DiDi xx

  4. Cathleen McCarthy
    March 19, 2013 at 12:22 am

    I’m not a gemologist but I hope you didn’t pay much for these beads, given that you’ve already stripped the color with chemicals and set them on fire.

  5. didi
    March 22, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Hi Cathleen lol!
    thank you for my message…no I didnt pay much for these beads but i do want to know what they are and i set fire to the same bead so only lost one!
    thank you DiDi

  6. Cathleen McCarthy
    March 22, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Oh good, I was picturing your entire string going up in sacrificial flames! Hopefully, the gem experts among us will weigh in and explain why it smelled of incense (interesting).

  7. Maya
    May 26, 2013 at 2:46 am

    If copal is “inferior” to real amber, why are the prices of copal beads so astronomically high? They are more expensive, bead for beads than amber. Would love to hear answers. Thanks.

  8. September 2, 2013 at 11:34 am

    I love copal and especially the antique red copal beads.
    My experience with copal from Ethiopia:Most of it is yellow of color and will turn red through a period of 50 years and older. This because the heat of the skin and the sun. They are worn on daily basis on a cotton string and therefore the hole is enlarged. They are hard to find since app.1980. What is done since that time is that the younger beads are being boiled or treated to get the red patina. The difference is that they are red through the whole bead as for the antique onces just the outer layer and inside still yellow of color.
    So that is also one reason why antique red copal beads are pretty expensive. There are also the clear see through red copal beads but do not know much about it. Although some are amber. Recently I read an article that a clumb of red amber was discovered and taken for research and found that (because of some insects in it) it had an age of 70 million years old so 20 more millions than the baltic amber. And of the red color.

  9. Walter Mehring
    October 24, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Maybe 20 years ago I bought a piece of yellow “amber” and made my wife a pendant of it, which she loved. Over the years, it lost its sheen and developed a crazed surface that isn’t nearly as attractive, and identifies it as copal, rather than amber.Little matter, since she enjoys it regardless. But is there a way to regain its former sheen? I tried buffing it with little effect.
    Yours, Walter

  10. priscilla pinkney
    December 19, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    Hello, I just started taking an interest in making jewelry with beads from the local stores. I have no knowledge in most of the stones, etc however, I enjoy creating earrings and necklaces. I am interested in making fashion jewelry so I’m not so caught up in all of the technical aspects of what the jewelry is made of. I just want folk to buy the product is they like how it looks. Any advice?

  11. Cathleen McCarthy
    December 19, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    Hi Pricilla. One perk to making fashion jewelry is you don’t have to worry about getting your investment back on materials. So follow your own muse and see where it takes you!

  12. Margaret Giudice
    March 19, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Hi Walter. You may already have received a response to your query; however here goes. I have an amber ring, which became scratched and dull through wear. I was advised by a colleague of mine who is a ‘rock hound’ to buff it using the finest surface (polisher) on a finger nail board – there are usually 3 grades of surface. I followed her advice and the amber came up a treat.

  13. Ros
    May 11, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    Copal resin can be mixed with plastic to make beads. Plastic with the addition of pine oil can give off a pleasant smell. Check out Peter Francis, Jr.’s “Beads of the World” for other tests–floatation, static charges, etc.

  14. Susan
    March 6, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    HOT NEEDLE
    Heat a needle point 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 emits a light fragrant odor. Amber when tested does not melt as quickly as the copal and emits sooty fumes

  15. Marti Hayduk
    March 7, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    I have approximately 40 large to very large amber and reddish colored beads which I purchased in the early 1970s.

    Could you advise me as to where I could have them appraised as I do not know what they are.

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