The most popular description and answer is that it is a beautiful golden stone used in jewellery. But what is it? Where did it come from?
We know that it is the fossilised
resin of ancient pine trees now largely extinct. There
were only two types of trees producing stable resin
which could with time fossilise into amber. These are
the Kauri pine (Agathis australis) some still in
Where has it been found ?
Throughout history, amber has been found in deposits all over the world. It varies in colour depending on the area where it was found and its age. Chinese, Burmese, Lebanese, Sicilian and Mexican ambers all vary in colour varying between very clear and almost black.
Today, the finest amber comes
from the Polish
Baltic amber when fresh varies in colour from lemon yellow, orange to dark brown. It can be cloudy or clear. If the amber is almost white it contains millions of air bubbles. Dark clear amber was exposed to the air and sea water. Obviously the rarity of any inclusions in the amber controls its value. Prices of amber can range from $20 to $40,000 or more.
Interest in amber dates back to
The ancient Romans burned amber
as incense.The Amber trade dwindled during the early
Middle Ages but in the 14th century amber artworks were
created around the
Centuries of artistry culminated
in the 18th century with the creation of the
His daughter, Empress Elizabeth, instructed the famous Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to expand the Room to fit into the new palace. As the wall 30ft high and almost double the height of the original amber chamber walls, the amber panels were framed in a cartouche of gilded boiserie with Florentine mosaics in the centre and 24 mirrors were added. Here the Room remained until World War II. The Russians were unprepared for the speed of the Nazi attack in September 1941. They tried to cover the amber panels with wallpaper but this didn't fool the Nazis, who stripped the wallpaper off the panels and packed them into crates and sent them by truck and train to a Baltic seaport from which they disappeared on the eve of the Allied victory.
Amber legends, myths and magic
Amber beads and amulets have been found in Stone Age tombs all along the Baltic Coast, in Ireland, England and as far as the Adriatic. Stone Age man used it to wear and to worship.
Amber was of great significance to the Assyrians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. Ovid wrote that when Phaeton, a son of Phoebus, the Sun, convinced his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the Sun across the sky for a day he drove too close to the earth and set it on fire. To save the Earth, Jupiter struck Phaeton out of the sky with his thunderbolts and he died, plunging out of the sky. His mother and sister stricken by grief turned into trees whilst weeping and their tears dried by the sun turned into amber.
Another ancient writer, Nicias, said that amber was the essence of the setting sun, congealed in the sea and cast up on the shore. The ancient Greeks discovered that sparks were produced when the amber was rubbed against cloth and
attracted small particles which is why the ancient Greeks called amber
Amber was considered to contain magical powers and was, therefore worn as charms to offer protection from evil spirits and witchcraft. According to Mohammed, a true believer's prayer beads should be made of amber.
It was acclaimed to possess the power of healing. In 79 A.D. Pliny wrote that the women of N.Italy wore amber beads to protect them against thyroid disease. Hippocrates, father of healing, declared amber active against a number of diseases including delirium tremens. Martin Luther carried a piece of amber in his pocket as a protection against kidney stones.
Powdered amber was mixed with honey and prescribed for asthma, gout and the black plague. A collection of old prescriptions can be found at the University
Today, amber paste is sold at
herbalists shops in
Amber - True or False?
Amber is very popular for making jewellery and as a result it is valuable and is often faked. These can be identified visually without resorting to damaging tests. Modern amber jewellery from the Baltic has circular commonly called sun spangles produced as a result of heating and cooling the amber. Baltic amber sometimes contains hairs from flowers of oak trees but these occur very rarely. A faked inclusion will belong to a living species not an extinct one and examination of the amber using a microscope will show that it has been cut and hollowed. Victorian jewellery used pressed amber which was made by heating small pieces of amber together. It came in a variety of colours either cloudy or clear. Pressed amber cannot really be called fake amber because it is made from genuine amber.
There are various substances used
to fake amber. Old Victorian and Edwardian necklaces
were made from bakelite (phenolic resin). Beads can be
clear or cloudy with yellow swirls which makes it
difficult to distinguish from the real thing. It is
slightly denser than amber. Copal containing inclusions
came from East Africa,
There are, however, various tests which can be used to distinguish between real and fake amber. Firstly, rubbing amber with alcohol does not make sticky. It is fairly soft and can easily be scratched. It floats in a saline solution and a hot needle test will produce a resinous smell. There are several scientific tests to identify amber. Infrared spectroscopy can indicate whether amber is Baltic as it has a characteristic " Baltic shoulder " on the spectrograph.
Care for amber
Amber is soft, only slightly harder than talc and should, therefore, be treated with care. To be avoided is contact with hard objects, chemicals such as perfumes and hairspray, excessive heat and light. Amber kept in a soft fabric bag will be protected from scratching and premature ageing.
To clean amber, wash it with mild soap and water and polish it dry with a soft cloth. The lustre lost from old amber may sometimes be restored by polishing it with a soft cloth saturated with olive oil.
The Amber Revolution
Over the last four years the
amber market has grown by leaps and bounds"In the last
four years our turnover has trebled " says Bob Rontaler,
managing director of the London based international