“…it was the ‘juice’ or essence of the brilliant rays of the setting sun, congealed in the sea and then cast up upon the shore.”
George Kunz (1856-1932), The Curious Lore of Precious Stones
Amber: One of nature's miracles
The name Amber stems from the Arab word ‘Anbar,' meaning ‘fragrant substance.’ The term ‘Anbar,' introduced into our language via Spain, referred to an aromatic substance produced by Sperm whales called ambergris, which was commonly used in perfumes. The shared name is likely due to the fact both substances are deposited on the seashore by waves, and if heated, emit a scent, similar to how ambergris was used in perfume making in the past.
Chemical composition of Amber
Amber is classified as an organic gem due to its vegetable origins. This classification includes all of the gemstones created or derived from living organisms. A geological era must pass for tree resin to transform into Amber. This process, like many other natural phenomena, remains incompletely understood. It involves the formation of complex molecular structures (molecular polymerization), the evaporation of terpenes and special conditions of heat and pressure. Freshly secreted, the resin begins to harden and is used for a variety of products.
It is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s Amber reserves are located in the Baltic, where over 90% of the world’s Amber supply used for jewelry and decorative arts is currently sourced. Baltic amber deposits are found in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine; these deposits were formed about fifty million years ago, when the resins of the Scandinavian forests collected in those areas. The heart of the Baltic amber trade is the Russian port of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg). In the 15th century, German knights held the port, keeping an iron hold on Amber production in Europe, punishing illegal traders with the sharp edges of their swords. Today, Kaliningrad is synonymous with the production of Amber, and is also a “Yantar Special Economic Zone” (Russian for Amber).
Sources of Amber also include Mexico and the Dominican Republic, where tropical Amber is mined in the Amber Valley.
The history of Amber
Due to its relationship with the sun, Amber has always been considered a magical light that guides men through the underworld. The Greeks called it ‘elektron,' meaning ‘made of sun’. The Greek etymology and Amber’s characteristic of developing an electrostatic charge when rubbed has given us the term ‘electricity’. An additional reference to its electrical properties is found in Persia, where it was called ‘Karabe,' meaning ‘that which attracts straw’. As suggested by its colloquial name of ‘sea stone,' Amber floats in seawater, and is thus deposited on the beaches that line the shores of the Baltic Sea, even reaching the British Isles at times. The Romans called it ‘succinum,' derived from ‘sucus,' (juice or thick liquid). Baltic Amber is also referred to as Succinite, created from a common tree that evolved 50 million years ago during the Eocene epoch in Northern Europe.
Of course, a gemstone with such an antique heritage is associated with myths and legends: Phaethon, son of Helios, god of the Sun, asked his father for permission to drive the sun chariot across the sky to prove his divine origins. Helios consented, but tragedy awaited - the chariot flew too high and the earth cooled, then he flew too low and transformed part of Africa into a desert. Only then was Zeus forced to intervene, throwing a thunderbolt that annihilated Phaeton. Phaeton’s sister cried for the loss of her brother, her tears transformed into poplars destined to eternally shed tears of Amber.
Properties of Amber
Due to its light weight, its warmth to the touch and above all its wonderful golden color, Amber remains a well-loved gemstone. Amber’s colors depend on its composition (species of tree) and on what happened in the time after it was secreted. Ranging from transparent to translucent, Amber displays a vast array of colors - blue, brown, gold, green, orange, red, white and yellow. There are 256 documented color tones for Baltic Amber, which can be divided into three major groups: antique (or classic), cognac and lemon. Occasionally, the inappropriate term ‘Black amber’ is used, which is nothing more than a deeper shade compared to the other colors.
Other peculiarities of this gemstone may be found in the scintillating natural imperfections and cracks, as well as prehistoric inclusions such as seeds, leaves, feathers and insects. Amber which encloses insects buried millions of years ago is not only a collector’s item, but also offers paleontologists and geneticists a priceless window into the past.
Varieties of Amber
In addition to famous examples of Golden Amber, there are also a number of green varieties found in Russia, which feature a chromatic display ranging from golden lime green to forest green.
Care for Amber
Amber should only be cleaned using a moist cloth.