Amber is a very unusual substance being both tree resin (sap) and a fossil. The oldest fossil resins found come from seed ferns (pteridosperms) dating back to the Carboniferous period (320 million years ago). These resins are physically and chemically unlike any other fossils resins known. Limestones from the Permian period (260 million years ago) from the area of the Chekarda River in the western pedimont of the Ural Mountains have yielded microscopic quantities of resin. Fossil resins from the Triassic period have been found in Switzerland and Arizona (USA). The oldest ambers found with inclusions come from the early Cretaceous of Lebanon in the middle East.

Unlike other fossils where the original organic structure is replaced by minerals, the chemical composition of ambers remain virtually unchanged. This is why the inclusions in amber are so wonderfully preserved. A window to the ancient environment is opened. By comparing the inclusions from a particular amber deposit and the organisms in the different environments of today, researchers can draw conclusions as to the nature of the environment in which these organisms lived. A wide range of life has been found encased in amber; insects, lizards, frogs, spiders and other arthropods, and a variety of botanical inclusions.

How does resin become amber? With a lot of luck. Several important things must occur. Resin will decompose if left exposed to the atmosphere. All those many years ago, the globs of resins were carried by moving water and became buried in the sediments of an oxygen-poor environment. The molecules of the resins began to cross-link with one another. The process generally takes several million years although there is no hard-fast rule. A continum exists starting with fresh sap oozing from a tree and ending with amber. Copal is an intermediate stage. It is not as hard and durable as amber.

Amber occurs in deposits of different ages and is found in many places throughout the world. Most of these deposits occur in just trace amounts. Just a few deposits are large enough to be mined. Amber and copal was not produced from one kind of tree but from variety of different conifers and tropical broad-leafed trees.

Is it real or not real -- That is the question!
There are several different material that are commonly encountered as fake amber.
  • Copal
  • Glass
  • Phenolic resins
  • Celluloid
  • Casein
  • Modern plastics (such as polyesters and polystyrene)
  1. Copal is a natural resin as is amber. It is not as old and polymerized as amber. Copal has a lower melting point than amber and melts rather than burns. This allows for the insertion of organisms.
  2. Glass is cold to the touch, dense, and isn't scratched by steel.
  3. Phenolic resin also known as bakelite is the most common material used in fake amber necklaces. Most often, the oval beads become progressively larger as they move from the necklace catch. Colors may be dark red, transparent or cloudy. Phenolic resin is slightly denser than amber.
  4. Celluloid (cellulose nitrate) is usually yellow and cloudy. It is slightly denser and more inflammable than amber.
  5. Casein is a plastic made from milk. Beads made from this material are cloudy and a dirty yellow color. Casein is slightly heavier than amber.
Tests for Amber
  1. Alcohol test - Put a drop of isopropanol or ethanol on a polished surface and let it evaporate. With copal, the polish is removed and the surface becomes sticky. There is no reaction with amber or the other fake materials.
  2. Scratch test - A pin will scratch the surface of amber (and other fake materials) but not glass.
  3. Hot wire test - Heat a wire or needle red hot,let it cold slightly, and touch it to the material in question. This will produce a puff of smoke. Amber has a slightly acrid resinous smell, copal has a sweet resinous smell, and many fake materials have an acrid plastic-like odor.
  4. Saltwater test - Stir 7 heaping teaspoons of salt into a half pint (284 mm) of water. For the next few minutes, give a quick stir every 30 seconds. The salt solution has a higher specific gravity (1.1) than amber and copal. These material will float whereas the other materials will sink.

  1. Does alcohol make it sticky?
  2. Can it be scratched?
  3. Does it float in a saturated salt solution?
  4. Does a hot wire produce a resinous smell?
Amber N Y Y Y
Copal Y Y Y Y
Glass N N N N
Phenolic resin N Y N N
Celluloid N Y N N
Casein N Y N N
Other plastics N Y N N
Polystyrene N Y Y N
(Y = yes; N = No)
The information in this section comes from AMBER The Natural Time Capsule by Andrew Ross of The Natural History Museum in London

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