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Organic Gems: Amber & Copal

Amber (Succinite) & Copal used in Jewelry

Amber Gems

Source: Poland, Russia, Dominican Republic

Amber (succinite) is the direct result of fossilization through a natural polymerization of coniferous pine-tree resin that was preserved within sedimentary material, then redeposited through erosion. Around 45 million years ago, "amber-giving" pine trees (Pinus succinifera) deposited resin into the soil of what is now Scandinavia and the Baltic area of Poland and Russia. The oldest known amber dates back to the Upper Carboniferous period approximately 345 million years ago, while the oldest known amber containing insects dates back to the Lower Cretaceous period, approximately 146 million years ago.

Although amber is not mineralized as are other gemstones, it is considered to be a semi-precious gemstone. Through the passage of time, the amber-forming resin was fully polymerized, meaning that all of the liquid components in the resin were eliminated in a process called "condensation polymerization." The amber was then carried by waterways to the Polish Baltic coastline (Prussian Amber), where it was deposited in the so-called "blue earth" of the delta between Chlapowo and the Sambian Peninsula. Baltic amber is found as irregular nodules within marine glauconitic sand (aka "blue earth"), occurring in the Lower Oligocene strata of Samland in Prussia, in historical sources also referred to as Glaesaria.

Amber typically has many imbedded inclusions of needles, twigs, leaves, flowers, and seeds, as well as small insects, and arachnids that became trapped and preserved in the pine resin as it began to fossilize. Some of the insects that were trapped within the amber look as if they were frozen in flight, capturing a moment in time which took place some 50 million years ago.

Polish Amber Jewelry

Amber Jewelry: European Jeweler & Goldsmith

   Raw Amber Jewelry

The name "succinite" was derived from the Latin word succinum, which means "amber," and refers to the presence succinic acid. Succinic acid, also known as "spirit of amber," is derived from pulverized and distilled amber, and was historically used as an externally-applied medicinal potion.

Evidence of amber use by ancient European cultures dates back to the 13th millennium B.C., but it may have been recognized for its beauty as early as the Stone Age. Prized by the ancients for having "captured the warmth of the sun," amber was carved into animal figurines in the belief that it would make them easier prey. Amber was mined along the Baltic Coast starting in the Bronze Age, using a process called amber fishing.

The discovery that amber came from the resin of a pine tree was made by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD, when he burned a piece of amber, immediately noticing its distinct aroma. Amber jewelry was very popular in ancient Roman, and an "amber route" was developed for the trade in amber which fostered social and economic development in many parts of northern Europe. During this period, amber was more expensive than the most valuable commodities, including slaves.

The 17th century was the golden age of the amber craft and the city of Gdansk (Poland) was its epicenter. During this period, notable craftsmen and artists created chandeliers, caskets, furniture and statues, of gold, silver, and amber for royalty and the wealthy of Europe.

Amber is a soft material which is heterogeneous in composition, but consists of several resinous bodies more or less soluble in alcohol, ether and chloroform, associated with an insoluble bituminous substance. Amber is a macromolecule, made by free-radical polymerization of several precursors in the labdane family (major components of resin and turpentine), communic acid, cummunol and biformene.

Amber Chemistry, Physical Properties

Crystal System amorphous
Mohs Hardness Scale 2.0 to 2.5
Refractive Index 1.54 (singly refractive)
Specific gravity (SG) 1.0 to 1.1
Cleavage none
Fracture conchoidal, brittle
Surface Luster resinous
Toughness poor
Birefringence none
Pleochroism none
Diaphaneity transparent to sub-translucent
Gem Color yellow-orange, brown, golden, green
Chemical Composition C10H16O (oxygenated hydrocarbon)

The movie Jurassic Park popularized the myth that someday we may be able to extract DNA from the entombed insects within, but entomologists George and Roberta Poinar have been studying samples of Baltic and Dominican amber for over two decades, and the possibility seems more remote than ever.

Dominican Amber & Mexican Amber

Amber is not limited to the Baltic coast of Europe, and the cooler conifer forests that created it. The tropical forests of the Caribbean and Central America were the hosts to a new source of amber (sometimes referred to as "neotropical amber") which is mined in the Dominican Republic. Neotropical amber is somewhat younger than its European cousin, created around 20 to 40+ million years ago [7]. Dominican Amber is formed as a result of the natural polymerization of the resin from an extinct bean tree (aka "algarroba tree," Hymenaea protera), or the "stinking toe tree" (Hymenaea courbil).

Dominican Amber has a higher likelihood of containing fossilized insects, particularly stingless bees (Nogueirapis), fig wasps (Hymenoptera), and a harvestman species known as Phalangodidae. Other sources of sub-tropical and tropical amber include Madagascar, and the African island of Zanzibar. A similar material called "copal" (aka "young amber") is found in some parts of the Dominican Republic, with an age of only 15-17 million years.

Mexican Amber (retinite) was formed from the resin of an extinct tree species in the genus Hymenaec (20-30 Million years ago), and is typically mined in the Chiapas region ("Chiapas amber") of southern Mexico. Its designation as a "retinite" is due to lower levels of succinite (succinic acid), which place it outside of the classification as an "amber."


Copal is an amber-like substance which is a solidified, or polymerized tree-resin from the genus Copaifera or Bursera, which is native to Mesoamerica and Southeast Asia, and the genus Boswellia which is native to Africa and Yemen. Unlike "amber," copal is only partially fossilized, having solidified over a period of several hundred years, and not millions of years like amber.

Copal was used by pre-Columbian cultures as an aromatic ceremonial incense, similar to frankincense from the Middle East. In pre-Hispanic times, the resin from South America was known as copalqu‡huitl, "copal tree," and as the resin copalli, or "copal incense." Copal resin is also produced to make "amber" for jewelry in the Asian counties of Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Tibetan copal is sometimes generically referred to as "Tibetan amber," or can be nicknamed "Tibetan beeswax amber" due to its dirty-yellow color.

Copal with Embedded Insects

Copal photo: www.copalcolombia.com


Copal photo: www.copalcolombia.com

African copal is sometimes referred to as "Tree of Life Amber," or "Ethiopian amber," and comes from the East African countries of Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and Zanzibar, as well as from Yemin on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Copal from the resin of the frankincense incense tree Boswellia carteri has been produced in this region for thousands of years, and many of the bead-shapers of this variety of copal amber were nomadic Oromo from Ethiopia. Copal amber beads were also produced in the West African nation of Mali, in the Dogon territory of the Sahara desert near Timbuktu.

Newer "Mali amber," "African amber," or "Tibetan amber" beads may be made from Bakelite, which is a phenol-formaldehyde resin (celluloid plastic) synthetic that is made to look like natural amber.

Tibetan Amber Beads

Tibetan amber beads

   Ethiopian Amber Copal Beads

Rough Ethiopian amber copal beads

Copal can be hardened by applying several rounds of thermal treatment in an autoclave, at temperatures between 150º C, 200º+ C for several hours at a time. The heating process can make copal comparable to amber in terms of its hardness. The copal can also be dyed to assume the deep amber (golden) or cognac color of Baltic amber.

Kansas Amber

Fossil resin and copal occur on the North American continent ("Kansas amber") was found within Cretaceous rock from the Mesozoic Era, in the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation of New Mexico. Kansas amber appears to be from the Araucariaceae family, which is considered to be a primary Mesozoic-era amber tree. Although the tree that created this resin is now extinct, it is similar to New Zealand's Kauri pine Agathis australis.

Amber Care

Care should be taken with the porous substance, sweat and skin oils can be absorbed, clouding the surface of the amber. You should also avoid the use of jewelry cloths that are impregnated with polishing compounds, as these will cloud and scratch the surface. Ultrasonic cleaners should never be used as they can shatter the stone.

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Bibliography and Reference on Amber & Copal Gems

1. Paul R. Shaffer, Rocks, Gems and Minerals . Martin's Press

2. Muzeum Ostroleka, Museum of Kurpie Culture . www.muzeum-ostroleka.art.pl

3. Pgsctne, History of Myszyniec . www.pgsctne.org

4. George O. Poinar, Jr, Fossilized Phalangodidae in Dominican Amber . www.americanarachnology.org

5. M. Alley-Crosby, The Stinking Toe Tree . www.batplants.co.uk

6. John Wilford, Stingless Bee of Dinosaur Age in Amber . www.nytimes.com

7. Malcolm W. Browne, 40-Million-Year-Old Extinct Bee Yields Oldest Genetic Material . www.nytimes.com

8. Ethiopian Copal: Tree of Life Amber . www.treeoflifeamber.com

9. Romanced by Wandering Amber . www.madinpursuit.com

10. Colombian Copal . www.copalcolombia.com

11. E.M. Collins Nature's Transparent Tomb . www.palomar.edu

12. Dave Gibson Mexican Amber . www.mexicanamber.org.uk

13. Garry Platt Amber - Frozen Moments in Time . www.gplatt.demon.co.uk

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