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What are Amber and Copal?

Amber is the fossilised resin of certain trees, which is why it often contains trapped extinct insects, pollen and other remains of the environment in which it formed. It is typically transparent to translucent, yellowish-reddish-brown, although a reddish amber, now very rare, is known from Burma (Myanmar). Amber, as a fossil, is of considerable age, with some being more than 300 million years old.

There is also a less durable (and more abundant) resin called copal. Despite its poor durability, it has also been used for ornaments and although generally of lighter yellow colour than most amber, is often confused with it and sometimes mis-sold as such, although this is a misleading practice. Like amber, copal can contain trapped insects and other matter.

Amber can come in a variety of colours and transparencies as seen in these necklaces. © Teresa Kasprzycka at Dreamstime
Beautifully preserved 'fly' in amber. Insect-bearing ambers are particularly interesting because insects can be well preserved and belong to extinct species - they can be the only record that a species ever existed. Photo Pat Daly. © Gem-A

Durability, fashioning and care

Amber and copal are soft materials and typically fashioned as beads, cabochons, carvings, rings, earrings, bracelets, and other ornate objects. These should be cleaned using lukewarm plain water and dried using a soft cloth. Avoid direct sunlight for prolonged periods. As amber is soft, avoid wearing when doing anything that can cause abrasion and avoid contact with perfumes, hair spray and solvents – even nail polish remover.

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