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 New Zealand and the (Hymenea) in Central America. As the resin oozed out of the trees it covered anything in its path, such as flies, spiders and many insects. In fact more than 1,000 extinct species have been identified in amber. This process of hardening took many millions of years. 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 Sea area .
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 Baltic Sea and guilds were set up controlling distribution.
Centuries of artistry culminated in the 18th century with the creation of the Amber Room. This was a chamber where the walls were completed covered by a mosaic of a hundred thousand perfectly aligned, intricately carved pieces of amber. The Amber Room was built under the direction of architect Andreas Schluter jnr. and built for the Prussian king Frederick I between 1701 and 1709. The amber was collected along the Baltic coast by special details of soldiers. The artisans polished these pieces sometimes heating them to change their colour and then cut them into interlocking pieces. But King Frederick William I was disgusted at this opulence and gave the Room to Peter the Great of Russia. He, in turn, was more interested in building the Russian navy and ignored the boxes of amber panels.
The original Amber Room was last seen in the city of Konigsberg, where it and other stolen artworks were on display during the war. In August 1944, RAF bombs destroyed the city centre and the king's castle, where the art was displayed. After the war this area of the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union and the town was renamed Kaliningrad. No remains of the Amber Room were found in the rubble of the castle. Various opinions abide as to the whereabouts of the Amber Room. Even Boris Yeltsin told the Germans that it remains hidden in Russia. Many Kaliningrad residents still believe that it remains in the immediate area. Whatever the truth is, it still remains today as one of the greatest single unsolved art thefts of the 20th century.
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?
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 ancient Greece where it was known as elektron due to the static electricity charge when the stone is rubbed. Roman warriors wore mail studded with amber for luck. In Nero's time amber was considered more valuable than a slave. The emperor was angered at having to pay middlemen for amber and dispatched an emissary to establish contact with Germanic tribes nearer the source. The emissary returned with 13,000 pounds of amber. Thus direct trade was established between Rome and the North.
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 "elektron".
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 of Bologna, the oldest university in Italy, in a book written in 1750. It mentions a remedy called "pilulae de succino" or amber pills and used as an excellent medicine for " head diseases " (In capitis affectibus singulariter conveniunt.) This was a term used to describe epilepsy and fainting.
Today, amber paste is sold at herbalists shops in Poland and used to alleviate rheumatic and other ailments. These kinds of pastes and ointments date back to the 19th century in Europeand wearing amber bracelets or beads is still considered medically beneficial.
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, Columbia and the Dominic Republic. These are easily recognisable as they contain insects of modern times. Modern plastics have been used in these countries as well.
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.