I’ve touched upon Amber in a few other of my Postings.
Like Pearls, Jet, and Ammolite (and others such as Coral, Bone, Shell and Ivory) Amber is an Organic Gemstone (‘gemstone’ being a bit of a misnomer). That means that unlike gems such as Ruby, Diamond, Garnet and most others, it was created from a once living thing.
For myself, Organic Gems are especially fascinating because of this, and Amber was the first gem that spawned my interest in Gemology as a child, even before Jurassic Park hit the theatres.
Amber is the hardened, fossilized tree sap of trees that grew 120 to 1 million years ago. The 1 million mark is important, as it ensures that the resin is durable enough to be considered Amber as opposed to Copal, which is immature Amber, and also finds its way to the market.
Although it can occur in rarer colours such as blue, most Amber is brown, yellow, white, orange or various shades of gold. It ranges greatly in transparency and can even be opaque. Of the many variations, red, transparent Amber tends to be the most valuable.
Although Amber’s sunny colours are very appealing, I’m most taken with Amber’s most famous characteristic–it’s organic inclusions. Not all Amber contains inclusions and not all included materials are Amber of course, but a lot of commercially available Amber contains leaves, pollen, moss, dust, soil, air bubbles and even insects and (very rarely) small reptiles who lived before being trapped for a small eternity and exposed by humans millions of years later. A piece of included Amber is a porthole to the past and no other natural material contains the same types of inclusions as Amber!
Amber’s oldest and richest history comes from Northern Europe, where 90% of top quality Amber hails from. While it occasionally washes ashore as the first people to discover Amber thousands of years ago noticed, probably while foraging for food, the vast majority of Amber is currently commercially mined along the shores of the Baltic Sea in relatively shallow pits.
Across the globe, the Dominican Republic is the second largest producer of Amber, although some maintain that this material is inferior to the Baltic Amber as the chemistry of the tree sap differs. The fossilization process of the differing saps however, is the same.
Ancient peoples along the coasts of the Baltic and most likely other ocean shores found and made use of Amber, however, the history of Amber in the Baltic is far more documented, and commercial production of Amber in the Dominican only began to come to fruition in the late 1940s. Dominican Amber tends to be paler, more translucent and more likely to contain larger more”exciting” inclusions such as insects than Baltic Amber, which may make it more desirable to some collectors.
Someone who is skilled at finishing and polishing Amber will take interesting patterns formed by the inclusions into account when fashioning the Amber into smooth, domed cabochons or beads. Amber is rarely but sometimes facetted. As Amber is comparatively soft amongst gemstones (2-3 on the Moh’s Scale–about the same as many harder plastics), it’s incapable of taking on an exceptional polish–the beauty of Amber lies in it’s warm colouring and inclusions and smooth cuts like cabochons and beads make the most of this.
Aside from being colourful, lightweight and easily carved/formed, Amber is warm to the touch, and there’s something very pleasing about handling it and wearing it, so it’s no surprise that it is one of Humanity’s oldest materials for adornment–wearing it puts the Wearer in direct contact with the past and their own life energy radiates thru the material. Amber beads and artifacts have been found where their fashioning dates back more than 13,000 years. There is evidence that Amber was traded by the Vikings and other Northern European tribes across the continent and beyond and it was revered by many peoples and cultures. Amber was even found in King Tut’s famous tomb!
Its beauty aside, some ancient people believed that wearing Amber treated or calmed various ailments now known as Arthritis, Depression, Colic, and Kidney Problems. Many people still believe this today, and Teething Necklaces (to be worn by cranky babies, not chewed by them!) are a Folk Remedy that has regained tremendous popularity. It’s thought that Amber worn against the skin releases minute amounts of oil that can assist with many types of pain.
Amber was also burned as an incense–it gives off a sweet, pine fragrance and is undoubtedly the origin of the German name for Amber, Bernstein, which literally means “burn stone”.
While some of it’s other properties have a “magic” to them, the fact that Amber is static electric probably fascinated ancient people! Friction across hair, skin and furs charged the Amber and it would have been truly unusual for our Ancestors to see a piece of Amber “move” and “draw” small bits of fur or hair to it. While many modern Plastics and other modern materials are also capable of this, to the Ancients this was truly magical and prehaps indicative of Amber’s “life force”.
Although relatively inexpensive, there are many Amber simulants and treatments on the market, most notably Plastic and Synthetic Resins. Many Plastics and imitations are capable of taking on the same colours, finish and entrapments as Amber and it does take a skillful eye to separate good imitations–something best left to an expert if one is really in doubt. As natural Amber has a low melting point, it is relatively easy to join separate bits of Amber together. The result is known as Pressed Amber or Reconstructed Amber and its price is not as high as comparable natural Amber. Keep in mind that large examples of Amber containing large and or well preserved insects and reptiles are very rare and very expensive–these tend to be Collector’s Stones and don’t usually end up in the unspecialized market. With some practice, it can get easier to tell if a specimen was naturally trapped in Amber or if it was implanted.
Bakelike was created as one of the first man-made plastics, appearing at the end of the last century. It had a variety of applications, but was also used for jewellery. It was lightweight, relatively durable and fun–a true innovation at the time!
While it was created in all shades of the rainbow for use in jewellery, much of it was yellow, brown and gold and made to be an Amber imitation. Bakelike is highly collectable and it’s a bit ironic to me that vintage Bakelite pieces very regularly fetch comparable or more money, and seemingly appeal to a wider market, than similar pieces made out of Amber. While I’ve seen many attractive jewellery pieces made out of or incorporating Bakelite, I’d rather have the ancient history and natural beauty associated with natural Amber close to my person.