Copal vs Amber – The Similarities and Differences (With Photos)

By Keith Jackson - Geologist

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Copal vs Amber – The Similarities and Differences (With Photos)

By Keith Jackson - Geologist


Copal and amber are two substances that share a common origin but have unique characteristics. In this article, we’ll learn all about the similarities and differences between copal and amber that make them unique from each other.

Imagine stepping back in time, deep into the ancient forests, where massive trees released their sticky sap into the air. Over millions of years, this resinous substance has transformed into these two unique gems.

If you compare copal vs amber, you’ll realize they’re like distant cousins. Both are formed from the exudations of trees, but they represent different stages in the fossilization process.

We’ll uncover the stories behind these gems and delve into the properties that make them stand out. This complete guide on copal and amber will surely be an interesting read for you.

Copal vs Amber – The Major Differences

In comparing amber vs copal, we discovered that they share a number of differences that may not be too obvious if we rely solely on their looks. Below are where these two gems are unique from each other:

Color – Copal comes in more color

Pieces of copal in different intensities of yellow hue
Copal pieces photo provided by and available for purchase at SacredMists

One of the first striking differences between copal and amber is their color. These two resins, although closely related in origin, display distinct color spectrums.

In its wide range of hues, cobalt offers a colorful palette that includes white, yellow, orange, red, and brown. This diversity in color can even be present within a single piece of copal.

Copal’s color may also change over time as it continues its slow journey toward full fossilization. This characteristic adds to its allure, as collectors and enthusiasts appreciate the dynamic nature of this resin.

On the other hand, amber is best known for its warm, golden to reddish-brown colors. These classic hues are what most people envision when they think of this ancient resin.

While amber can also appear in other colors like green or blue, these variations are relatively rare compared to the traditional amber shades. Its rich and timeless colors have made it highly prized for centuries.

Streak – Amber doesn’t leave a streak

Close-up look at a piece of amber with visible inclusions
Amber photo provided by and available for purchase at NoraAmber

Streak is the color of the powdered form of a mineral or substance when it’s scraped across a hard, rough surface. Interestingly, copal and amber exhibit different streaks.

Copal typically leaves a white or colorless streak when you rub a piece of it against a streak plate. This is a useful diagnostic property for identifying this rock in the field or in a collection.

In contrast, amber doesn’t leave a streak at all. When it’s scratched on a streak plate, it won’t produce any visible mark or color.

This is because amber is relatively soft compared to many other minerals and substances, so it doesn’t have the abrasive power to create a streak on a streak plate.

Hardness – Copal is softer and easier to scratch

A rough yellowish copal specimen

Hardness refers to a material’s resistance to being scratched or damaged, and it’s measured on the Mohs scale from 1 (softest) to 10 (hardest).

Copal is relatively soft compared to many gemstones and minerals. It typically falls within the range of 1.5 to 2.5 on the Mohs scale. It can be scratched quite easily with common objects like a fingernail or a knife.

Amber, on the other hand, is harder than copal. It usually ranks around 2 to 3 on the Mohs scale. It may be slightly more resistant to scratching than a copal, but it’s still relatively easy to scratch or dent with a sharp object.

These differences in hardness have implications for their use and durability in jewelry and other applications. Amber is less prone to surface damage than copal, making it a preferred choice for jewelry that will be subjected to wear and tear.

Density – Amber is more dense and compact

A nice classic Eocene amber with insect inclusion
Amber photo provided by @finemineralphotography

Density is a measure of how tightly packed the particles are in a material and is typically expressed in grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm³).

Copal is less dense than amber. Its lower density is due in part to its higher water content and the presence of volatile organic compounds.

This makes copal lighter in weight compared to amber of the same size. When you hold a piece of copal, it often feels less substantial in your hand.

Amber, being an ancient resin that has undergone millions of years of polymerization and hardening, is more dense and has a more compact and solid structure.

Understanding this difference in density can be useful in distinguishing between copal and amber, especially when handling unpolished or unprocessed specimens.

Composition – Copal’s composition can vary depending on its source and age

Pieces of copal in different colors
Copal pieces photo provided by Aftelier Perfumes, Mandy Aftel

Copal is considered a young resin in the early stages of fossilization. Its composition is characterized by a higher content of volatile organic compounds, including terpenes. It may also contain some water within its structure.

This composition makes copal less stable and more variable compared to amber. Its chemical makeup can vary depending on its source and age, and it can be more susceptible to changes over time.

Amber, on the other hand, is an ancient resin that has experienced polymerization and hardening over millions of years. This extended fossilization process has resulted in a more stable and well-preserved chemical structure.

The primary elements in amber’s composition are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, with some sulfur content.

These differences have implications for both their longevity and stability. Copal may continue to evolve and change over time, which can impact its appearance and physical properties, while amber is less susceptible to degradation and changes.

Formation – Amber is formed over millions of years

A big metasequoia tree leaf inside an amber specimen
Amber photo provided by Burmite-miner

Copal is the younger of the two resins. It originates from the resinous exudations of certain trees, primarily in tropical regions. Over time, these tree resins can become buried by sediment or organic material, starting the fossilization process.

However, copal is considered to be in an intermediate stage of fossilization, still retaining some of its original organic and volatile components. It takes thousands to tens of thousands of years for it to form.

Amber, on the other hand, is the elder sibling in terms of fossilization. It has undergone a much more protracted transformation process. Amber begins as tree resin just like copal, but it gets buried and undergoes polymerization and hardening.

This extensive fossilization process, involving heat, pressure, and chemical changes, transforms the original tree resin into the solid, durable substance we know as amber. The journey from tree resin to amber typically takes millions of years.

Location – Copal is found in tropical and subtropical areas

Two pieces of yellow copal

Copal can be found primarily in tropical and subtropical areas. Central and South America are its significant sources, with Mexico, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic known for their deposits.

Africa, including Kenya and Madagascar, also yields copal. It’s also found in parts of Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. These regions have climates conducive to resin production, where trees exude copal as a defense mechanism.

Amber, in contrast, has specific geological regions where it’s more commonly found. One of its most famous sources is the Baltic Sea region. Baltic amber from this region is believed to have formed from resin produced by ancient pine trees.

The Dominican Republic is another notable source of amber, particularly prized for its clear, blue varieties. Other locations where it can be found include Mexico, Myanmar, and parts of the U.S.

If want to try your luck finding them in the rockhounding sites near you, visit our article on that. You can also check out our guide to the gem mines near you.

Price – Amber commands higher prices

An amber with insect inclusion set as center stone of a gold ring
Amber ring photo provided by

Copal is generally more affordable compared to amber. It’s considered a younger resin, still in the process of fossilization. As a result, it lacks the geological age and historical significance that often drive up the value of amber.

Additionally, copal may contain more volatile organic compounds and water, making it less stable and less valuable.

In contrast, amber commands higher prices due to its unique qualities. As we said, this resin is ancient, with specimens dating back millions of years. This long history makes it a sought-after gem and fossil.

Amber’s rich, warm colors, clarity, and potential for containing rare inclusions such as insects or plant material also add to its desirability and value. Its use in jewelry and its historical importance in different cultures also contribute to its higher price.

It’s important to note, though, that rare or exceptional specimens of either copal or amber may command significantly higher prices than more common ones.

Copal vs Amber – The Similarities

While copal and amber share a lot of differences, they also have similarities that make it tricky to tell one from the other at first glance. Below are the major categories where these two resins are alike:

Luster – Copal and amber both have resinous luster

White copal wild harvested by the Mayan indigenous people of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula
White copal pieces photo provided by

The similarities in luster between copal and amber are quite pronounced, and they share a resinous luster that is a hallmark of their appearance.

Luster refers to how light interacts with the surface of a material, and in the case of copal and amber, it gives them a glossy, polished sheen reminiscent of tree sap or resin.

Both copal and amber share this resinous luster due to their common origin as tree resins. When light strikes the surface of either copal or amber, it reflects in a way that imparts a soft, radiant glow.

This shared characteristic is one of the reasons why they are often prized and used in jewelry and ornamental pieces. The resinous luster of both copal and amber can add to their attractiveness, giving them a natural and organic appearance.

Crystal Structure – Amber and copal are amorphous

A sparkling red amber specimen
Amber photo provided by and available for purchase at AmberDeLux

Both copal and amber share a common crystal structure: they are amorphous. Amorphous materials lack a distinct, regular, and repeating atomic or molecular pattern. In essence, their internal structure is disordered and irregular.

This stands in contrast to crystalline materials, such as quartz or diamond, which have a highly organized and repeating atomic structure.

This shared feature between copal and amber is a result of their origin as tree resins, which do not undergo the same kind of mineral crystallization process that many gemstones experience. Instead, the complex organic molecules in resin form a more random, non-repetitive structure as they solidify.

This lack of a true crystal structure in both copal and amber distinguishes them from many other minerals and gemstones. It also contributes to their relative softness and ability to be carved and polished into various shapes and forms.

Cleavage – Neither copal nor amber has cleavage

Cleavage is a property in minerals and crystals that describes how they break along specific planes when subjected to stress. Minerals with cleavage have a tendency to split or break along these well-defined planes.

Another notable similarity between copal and amber is that they both lack cleavage. When subjected to force or pressure, neither of them breaks along distinct planes. Instead, they tend to fracture irregularly, creating uneven surfaces.

This absence of cleavage is a result of their amorphous nature. They lack the organized and repeating atomic or molecular structure that gives rise to cleavage planes. Instead, their internal structure is disordered and irregular.

This similarity in the lack of cleavage makes copal and amber relatively easy to work with when carving or shaping them into various forms for jewelry or ornamental purposes.

Fluorescence – Amber and copal both fluoresce under UV light

A Mexican amber specimen with multiple insects as inclusions
Amber photo provided by SERT MİNERAL

Fluorescence is the emission of visible light when a material absorbs energy from a shorter-wavelength light source, such as UV light, and then re-emits that energy as visible light.

Both copal and amber can exhibit this phenomenon. When exposed to UV light, such as that emitted by a blacklight, these resins may emit a soft bluish or greenish glow. This fluorescence can vary in intensity and color depending on their composition.

The exact cause of fluorescence in copal and amber is not completely understood, but it’s believed to be related to the presence of certain organic compounds or impurities within the resin.

This shared fluorescence property adds to the allure and mystique of copal and amber. Many collectors and enthusiasts are fascinated by their ethereal glow under UV light, and it has become their popular feature.

Magnetism – Neither copal nor amber is magnetic

A raw copal specimen from Colombia
Copal photo provided by Sullivan Stones & Consulting, LLC

Copal and amber do not have any magnetic properties. They do not attract or repel objects with magnetic properties, such as iron or steel.

The absence of magnetic properties in these resins is related to their chemical composition and atomic structure. Both are amorphous materials.

In contrast, magnetic materials typically have a specific arrangement of atoms or ions that enables them to interact with magnetic fields.

The fact that copal and amber are non-magnetic is not uncommon among organic materials. Many natural substances, especially those of organic origin, like wood, bone, and most plastics, are non-magnetic.

Their atomic and molecular structures do not allow them to become magnetized or exhibit magnetic properties, even when placed in the presence of strong magnetic fields.

Conductivity – Both amber and copal are insulators

Almost half a prehistoric lizard inclusions in premium amber
Amber photo provided by Pristine_Burmite

Electrical conductivity refers to the ability to conduct an electric current or allow the flow of electrical charges. In the case of copal and amber, they are both insulators, meaning they do not conduct electricity.

The reason for this lies in their amorphous or non-crystalline structure. Copal and amber lack the organized and well-defined atomic or molecular arrangements that are typically found in conductive materials.

Conductivity usually occurs when a material contains free-moving electrons or ions that can facilitate the flow of electrical charges. However, in copal and amber, the absence of such electron mobility results in their insulating properties.

This non-conductive nature is a common feature among many organic materials, including resins, plastics, and wood.

The Easiest Ways To Tell Copal and Amber Apart

Pieces of raw copal with different shades
Copal photo provided by Ethnoparadise

Aside from the similarities and differences between copal and amber that we discussed, we’ll also share with you some doable, practical tests and observations that you can do to tell them apart:

Examine its inclusions

Inclusions are tiny objects or organisms trapped within the resin as it solidifies. Amber, being millions of years old, often contains ancient and well-preserved specimens, such as insects, plant material, or even small animals.

In contrast, copal does not typically contain ancient inclusions. Its young age is insufficient to account for the presence of long-extinct species or well-preserved organisms. Its inclusions may appear cloudier or less well-defined.

Furthermore, the concentration and diversity of inclusions can also differ between copal and amber. Amber often has a higher density of inclusions compared to copal.

Do a salt water test

A saltwater test can help distinguish between copal and amber based on their buoyancy in a saturated saltwater solution. It can be particularly useful when dealing with unpolished or unprocessed specimens.

Amber is denser than water, which means it will generally sink when placed in freshwater. However, when submerged in a saturated saltwater solution, which is denser than freshwater, amber will typically float.

On the other hand, when copal is placed in the same saltwater solution, it may not float as readily as amber. Its higher porosity and ability to absorb water can make it sink or float with more difficulty in the denser saltwater.

Conduct a heating test

When subjected to heat, copal and amber behave differently. To do a heating test, you can use a heated needle or pin to gently touch the resin in an inconspicuous spot

When a specimen of amber is heated, it generally does not melt or emit a strong scent. Instead of melting, amber may become slightly softer, but it will not significantly change its form or appearance when exposed to moderate heat.

In contrast, copal behaves differently when heated. It softens, becomes tacky, and may even melt to some degree. Additionally, it often emits a distinct sweet or pine-like aroma when heated, which is a characteristic scent associated with copal resin.

About Keith Jackson - Geologist

Keith Jackson is an avid rockhound who is constantly exploring new sites to expand his collection. He is an active Geologist with a wealth of experience and information from across the country that he loves to share with the Rock Chasing crew.

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