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Friday, 18 January 2013

Amber – What is Amber - Facts and Useful Information

Amber - What is Amber

Amber is fossilized tree resin (not sap), which has been appreciated for its colour since Neolithic times. Amber is used as an ingredient in perfumes, as a healing agent in folk medicine, and as jewellery. Because it originates as a soft, sticky tree resin, amber sometimes contains animal and plant material as inclusions. Amber occurring in coal seams is also called ‘resinite’, and ‘ambrite’ when found specifically within New Zealand coal seams.
The English word ‘amber’ derives from the Arabic anbar, Medieval Latin ambar and Old French ambre. The word originally referred to a precious oil derived from the Sperm whale (now called ambergris). The term was extended to fossil resin circa 1400, and this became the main meaning as the use of ambergris declined. In French "ambre gris" was then distinguished from "ambre jaune"; ‘ambre gris’ (gray amber) was ambergris; ‘ambre jaune’ (yellow amber) was the fossil resin we now call amber.
Theophrastus mentioned ‘amber’ - possibly the first historical mention of the material - in the 4th century BC. The Greek name for amber was ηλεκτρον (electron) and was connected to the Sun God. The modern terms "electricity" and "electron" derive from the Greek word for amber. Pliny the Elder mentioned the presence of insects in amber and mentioned it in his ‘Naturalis Historia’, this lead him to guess that amber might have been liquid at some point and able to cover the bodies of insects. Hence he named the substance succinum or gum-stone. The word "electricity" is derived from the Greek name for Amber, electrum. This is because amber can acquire an electric charge when rubbed. Thales described this magical property in about 600 BC - and it remains one of the most useful methods to identifying real amber in gold and silver jewellery. There have always been claims that amber rosaries and amulets can actually conduct current, discharging excess energy in the body. Amber has long been worn and carried by men, as a talisman against sexual impotence.
Beads of resins from tree, in time they will become amber
Amber will soften if heat is applied and it will eventually burn. This lead to it being named Bernstein or burn-Stone is German. If heated above 200°C, amber will decompose, producing an "oil of amber" and leaving a black residue which is known as "amber pitch" - which when dissolved in oil of turpentine or in linseed oil - forms "amber varnish".

How was it formed?

Molecular polymerization, resulting from high pressures and temperatures produced by overlying sediment, transforms the resin first into copal. Sustained heat and pressure drives terpenes* off, resulting in the formation of amber. Copal is an immature resin and it is sometimes passed off as amber. It is said to be immature because not all the volatile terpenes have left the resin via geological processes over millions of years. Therefore it is younger in age than true amber. [*Terpenes and terpenoids are the primary constituents of the essential oils of many types of plants and flowers].

Botanical origin

Fossil resins from Europe fall into two categories: the famous Baltic ambers and another. Fossil resins from the Americas and Africa are closely related to the modern genus Hymenaea (plant of the legumes family); while Baltic ambers are thought to be fossil resins from ‘Japanese Umbrella-pine’ used to live in north Europe.
Historically, the coast around Königsberg in Prussia was the world's leading source of amber. After 1945 the territory around Königsberg was turned into Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia, where it is now systematically mined. About 90% of the world's extractable amber is still located in Russia on the Baltic Sea and pieces of amber torn from the seafloor are cast up by the waves, and collected by hand, dredging or diving. Elsewhere, amber is mined, both in open works and underground galleries. Amber from the Baltic Sea has been extensively traded since antiquity.
Small fragments that used to be thrown away or used only for varnish, are now used on a large scale in the formation of "amberoid" or "pressed amber". The pieces are carefully heated with exclusion of air and compressed into a uniform mass by intense hydraulic pressure. The product is extensively used for the production of cheap jewellery and articles for smoking.

Geological record

The oldest amber recovered dates to the ca.320 million years ago. Other old amber specimens come from the Middle East: Lebanon and Jordan. This amber is roughly 125–135 million years old and is considered of high scientific value. Many remarkable insects and spiders were recently discovered in the amber of Jordan, including the oldest zorapterans, clerid beetles, umenocoleid roaches, and achiliid planthoppers. [Not sure I really want to know what they look like!]. Relics of flora occur as inclusions trapped within the amber while the resin was still fresh, suggesting relations with the flora of Eastern Asia and the southern part of North America.

Paleontological significance

Amber is a unique preservation medium, preserving otherwise unfossilisable parts of organisms - even their soft tissues - which are helpful in the reconstruction of ecosystems and organisms. As seen in the movie Jurassic Park, mosquitoes can still have the blood of their victims inside them, sealed and kept intact forever. It's no wonder Amber is a symbol of eternity and eternal divinity!
Amber sometimes contains animals or plant that became caught in the resin as it was secreted. Insects, spiders and their webs, annelids, frogs, crustaceans, bacteria, marine microfossils, wood, flowers and fruit, hair, feathers and other small organisms have been recovered in ambers dating back to 130 million years ago.


Amber occurs in a range of different colours. From the usual yellow-orange-brown associated with the colour "amber", to a whitish colour through to a pale lemon yellow, brown and almost black, even (very rarely) violet.
Much of the most highly-prized amber is transparent, in contrast to the very common cloudy amber and opaque amber. Opaque amber contains numerous minute bubbles.
Sometimes amber retains the form of drops and stalactites, just as it exuded from the ducts and receptacles of the trees.
Amber can be classified into several forms:
• Natural Baltic amber – gemstone which has undergone mechanical treatment only (for instance: grinding, cutting, turning or polishing) without any change to its natural properties;
• Modified Baltic amber – gemstone subjected only to thermal or high-pressure treatment, which changed its physical properties, including transparency and colour;
• Reconstructed (pressed) Baltic amber – gemstone made of Baltic amber pieces pressed in high temperature and under high pressure without additional components;
• Bonded Baltic amber – gemstone consisting of two or more parts of natural, modified or reconstructed Baltic amber bonded together with the use of the smallest possible amount of a colourless binding agent necessary to join the pieces.
Amber increases in value with the rarity and perfection of the entrapped object. Complete insect specimens are rare and command top price.
Copal, is also a tree resin but it hasn't fully fossilized to amber. It is usually only thousands of years old, instead of millions of years. There is strong debate about some deposits of African amber as to whether it is copal or true amber.


Amber has been used since antiquity in the manufacture of jewellery and ornaments, and also in folk medicine. Amber also forms the flavouring of ‘aquavit’ and it is used as an ingredient in perfumes.


Amber has been used since the Stone Age, from 13,000 years ago. Amber ornaments have been found in Mycenaean tombs and elsewhere across Europe. Nowadays it is also used in the manufacture of smoking and glassblowing mouthpieces. Amber is most often set in gold and silver jewellery. Mediterranean countries started to trade in Amber for jewellery making as far back as 2500 BC. Amber from this period has been found 600 miles from its place of origin. Amber was very popular and highly valued in this time period, because it is softer than minerals and was easier to work with primitive methods.

Historic medicinal uses

Amber has long been used in folk medicine for its healing properties. Amber and extracts were used in ancient Greece for a variety of treatments through to the Middle Ages and up until the early twentieth century.

Scent of amber and perfumery

In ancient China it was customary to burn amber during large festivities.
Although, when burned amber does give off a characteristic "pine-wood" fragrance, modern products, such as perfume, do not normally use actual amber. This is due to the fact that fossilized amber produces very little scent. In perfumery, scents referred as “amber” are often created to emulate the opulent golden warmth of the fossil.
Ambergris is the waxy aromatic substance created in the intestines of sperm whales and was used in making perfumes both in ancient times as well as modern ones. The scent of amber was originally derived from emulating the scent of ambergris, but due to the endangered status of the sperm whale, the scent of amber is now largely derived from labdanum [Labdanum is a sticky brown resin obtained from the shrubs Cistus ladanifer (conifers)]. The term “amber” is loosely used to describe a scent that is warm, musky, rich and honey-like, and also somewhat oriental and earthy. It can be synthetically created or derived from natural resins. When derived from natural resins it is most often created out of labdanum. Benzoin is usually part of the recipe. Vanilla and cloves are sometimes used to enhance the aroma.

Amber is technically not a gemstone or mineral

Early physicians prescribed amber for headaches, heart problems, arthritis and a variety of other ailments. In ancient times, amber was carried by travellers for protection. To the early Christians, amber signified the presence of the Lord. In the Far East, amber is the symbol of courage; Asian cultures regard amber as the 'soul of the tiger' and Egyptians placed a piece of amber in the casket of a loved one to ensure the body would forever remain whole.
It is worn for general good luck, financial stability and to ward off danger from witchcraft. It is rich in medicinal values and used for curing many chronic ailments.
The wearer must refrain from luxuries and temptations of life. It relieves of tensions and is good for those interested in social and humanitarian causes. It should be kept away from heat or sun.
Amber is highly recommended for those who often have to meet challenging situations and frustrating atmosphere. It is considered to brings a care free, sunny disposition, to promote good luck and success, and dissolve oppositions.
Healers use it for stomach, spleen and kidney complaints; joint problems and teething pain in babies.
The gemstone Amber is one of the birthstones listed for the Sun Sign for Taurus.
Powers attributed to amber include love, strength, luck, healing, and protection, calming for hyperactivity and stressed nerves, finds humour and joy. Legend says that Amber was believed to provide magicians and sorcerers with special enhanced powers.
Helps remove energy blockages, strengthens physical body. Excellent for enhancing consciousness. Amber represents the division between an individual's energy and cosmic energy, the individual's soul and the universal soul of all living things. It is the symbol of divinity. Ancient painters used the colour amber to denote the divine. The faces of gods and goddesses, heroes and saints were all painted amber.

How to recognise Amber

Several tests are known to determine whether your piece is real or not.
Baltic amber is considered the highest quality in the world. But because amber is a lightweight organic fossil resin, it is possible to imitate it by using lightweight plastics and synthetics. Some imitations are made with the purpose of creating false insect inclusions, rather than creating a false piece of amber in general. There are a few tests one can do to determine real amber from imitations.
Plastics are the most common amber imitations and can be distinguished from natural amber. Celluloid is composed of cellulose nitrate and camphor. Amber imitators of celluloid and glass can be distinguished from amber by the fact that when rubbed the imitation does not become electro-statically charged and gives off the odour of camphor. Amber becomes electro-statically charged when rubbed and like plastic both are warm to the touch and can be distinguished from glass, which is cool to the touch, heavier and has a higher specific gravity. The following tests are the most commonly available and easiest to perform. However care should be taken to avoid damage to the piece tested.

Static test
. This is the simplest and safest test. Amber is warm to the touch and when rubbed, it will become electro-statically charged and will attract lint & dust particles. This is what the ancient Greeks discovered and named it "electron", which is where we get the term "electricity".
It’s electric! Amber holds a charge of static electricity and was actually used to remove lint in earlier times. To see if your “amber” is static, place some small pieces of tissue on a flat surface. Rub the amber vigorously on the carpet or with a piece of velvet until it is warm and hold it closely above the tissue pieces. If the pieces of tissue are not attracted to the specimen, it is not amber. If tissue is attracted to the specimen, it may be amber.
Hot, hot, hot. Is your specimen warm or cold to the touch? Amber should feel warm when handled at room temperature.
Does it float? True amber floats in salt water. This is how it was discovered – floating on the Baltic sea. Amber is only slightly denser than saltwater, and can be carried vast distances by the sea. To see if your “amber” floats, dissolve two tablespoons of table salt in eight ounces of water. Drop your “amber” into the solution. If it sinks, it is not amber. If it floats, it is probably amber. This method only works if the amber is removed from its setting.
Pine fresh scent. Rub the specimen briskly on a piece of cloth until it gets warm, and then smell it. If it’s real amber, it should emit a mild pine or turpentine odor. If it smells like plastic or chemicals, it isn’t amber. Beware that if it has the right smell, it still may be copal.
The scratch test. Real amber has a hardness of approximately 2.5 on the Moh’s scale. This is quite soft, but your fingernail alone should not be able to scratch it. Try scratching your “amber” gemstone with your fingernail. If it makes a mark, it isn’t amber. If it doesn’t make a mark, it may be amber. This is an effective test in distinguishing copal from amber, as copal is very soft can be scratched with a fingernail.
Does it glow? Place your “amber” specimen under a short-wave ultraviolet light. If the specimen is fluorescence with a pale blue under the light, it may be amber. If it doesn’t glow at all, or glows a color other than pale blue, it is not amber. Copal doesn’t fluoresce.
Baby oil test. Drop your specimen into a clear glass of mineral oil (Johnson’s Baby Oil works fine). Mineral oil and amber have very similar refractive indexes. If the edges of the “amber” appear as a dark outline or light halo, the specimen is not amber. If it is difficult to distinguish the edges of the “amber”, it may be real.
Lick it. Wash the specimen with mild soapy water then rinse and dry thoroughly. Taste it – do you detect a chemical, strong, or unpleasant taste? If so, it isn’t amber. Remember, amber comes from the trees, so it shouldn’t taste unnatural or manmade. If the specimen has no taste (or one that is very subtle) it may be amber.
A Bug’s Life. If your specimen contains an insect or other animal, try to have it identified!!

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