( Fr- ambre / karabé ; Ger
- Bernstein ; Nor - rav ; Rus - )
[For additional English and non-English designations, see APPENDIX D.]
Amber, No set formula: Typically 75 to 80 percent carbon -- plus hydrogen and oxygen in about equal amounts.
A. Amber with enclosed insect (height - 2.2cm). Bill Heher collection. (© photo by Jeffrey A. Scovil)
B. Amber "fishermen." Sketch shows two leather-clad amber gatherers on a Baltic seashore during the winter. The steaming bucket, near the top right side of the illustration indicates how the men melted ice from their garb, which often became frozen solid as they "fished." (Plate from the first known book about amber -- Hartmann, 1677)
C. Amber carving (height - ca. 20 cm). Smithsonian Institution. (© photo by Dick Dietrich)
DESCRIPTION: A fossil tree
Colors - nearly colorless, off-white, light yellow, honey-yellow, orange-brown; reddish, greenish or bluish brown; and rarely red, white or black. Apparently some yellow amber becomes reddish after relatively long-term burial.
S.G. 1.05-1.10 (will float on saturated salt water)
Light transmission - transparent to subtranslucent, with some so-to-speak cloudy amber virtually opaque because of the presence of gas bubbles or "pockets"
Luster - resinous or waxy
Breakage - brittle with conchoidal to splintery fracture
Miscellaneous - emits an odor similar to that of burning pine needles when ignited; as a poor conductor of heat, it feels warm; when rubbed briskly with, for example, sheep skin or wool cloth, amber attracts particles of dust, feathers, straw, small pieces of paper, etc. (such procedures are thought to have led to the discovery of static electricity); some (not all!) amber fluoresces under ultraviolet rays -- this is not to be confused with the bluish color seen in some amber under normal lighting, a phenomenon that appears to be due to a fluorescence caused by visible light rays and/or Rayleigh scattering; [and] amber commonly contains the remains of relatively small animals, chiefly insects, and plants. In addition, it seems worthwhile to list some of the rather frequently used adjectives used, albeit most often in the marketplace, to describe colors and other characteristics of certain ambers here -- e.g., cabbage, clear, cognac, fatty, flame, foamy or frothy, golden, honey, sauerkraut, turbid, and "will o' the wisp."
OTHER NAMES:As Fraquet (1987) has written, "Back in the last century over 100 fossil resins were named, and this has confused the overview for it is now thought that many resins, fossil or otherwise, share the same botanic parentage." A few of the many terms currently applied rather widely to amber or to natural resins that resemble amber follow:
OCCURRENCES: Relatively large
amounts of amber have been found along Baltic beaches and in nearby
amber-bearing Tertiary marine strata. Sarawak, Malaysia amber is
recorded as occurring "as irregular, often loaf-like, pieces within the
coal seams" frequently in circular groups (i.e., around the
bases of the former trees) (Thielemann, et al., 2001).
See also the localities alluded to under the OTHER NAMES
subheading. From a different viewpoint, Santiago-Blay and Lambert
tabulate some of the plants (conifers and flowering plants) that are
known to produce exudates -- e.g.,
those that have been the precursors of amber.
NOTEWORTHY LOCALITIES: Succinite -- sporadically
in and along the Baltic Sea, where it has been recovered with nets and
by dredging from, for
example, unconsolidated marine sediments near Gdansk, Poland
(formerly Danzig Free State) and northeast of Kaliningrad, Russia
(formerly Königsberg, East Prussia), on the Samland
-- near the mouth of the Simeto River, eastern Sicily. Rumanite (=romanite) --
in western Rumania, near the southeastern end of the Carpathians, west
of the Black Sea. Burmite
-- from the vicinity of Maingkwan, north of Mogaunga, northern
Amber not otherwise defined
yellowish-greenish one from the Ukraine gained special attention
recently because of its use in
the late restoration of the famous Amber Room in Catherine the Great's
St. Petersburg palace; "one of the
world's largest amber deposits ... [is] in the Merit
Pila open-pit coal mine in Sarawak (Borneo),
Malaysia" (Thielemann, et al., 2001); AND, examples
in the western hemisphere are: The Monte Cristi Range,
south of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic; near San Cristobal las
Casa in the state of Chiapas, Mexico; and along the Ketic River,
near Point Barrow, Alaska. See also localities noted under the
NAMES subheading. In addition, Santiago-Blay
and Lambert (2007, p.155) plot localities of "major
deposits of [Mesozoic and Tertiary] amber and copal."
REMARKS: Amber, the English designation for the fossil resin used as a gemrock, is noted in most English-language dictionaries to have the following general etymology: Middle English ambre > Old French ambre > Medieval Latin ambra (or ambar), from the Arabic 'anbar, which originally referred to ambergris and only later also to amber. Alternative etymologies have, however, been suggested -- See Appendix D.
Some amber in the marketplace has had its color
and/or overall appearance and/or workability improved by such
procedures as heating, dyeing, coating with varnish (etc.) or
embedding within such materials as plastics, or combinations of two or
more of these (and other!) treatments. Two especially noteworthy
examples are: 1.spangling, a treatment that involves heating of amber
in oil until cracks (i.e., spangles) appear and then using some
process to introduce a dye, commonly red or green in color, into those
cracks (Hargett, 1988); 2.dyeing -- e.g., the lac
(amber) from India -- to produce
diverse colors, for use in such things as bangles. Unfortunately,
the results of some of the treatments of amber may be of mixed
-- e.g., some brown amber that has been heat-clarified loses
the so-formed outer coating responsible for its aquired dark brown
appearance and becomes much lighter in color when the amber is exposed
light (McClure, 1993). A tabulation of the "Properties of unheated
and heat-treated amber" has been published (Chang, 2003).
Strictly speaking, reconstructed and pressed ambers are also
treatments -- see under SIMULANTS subheading. In addition,
especially in the past, some amber has been backed by such things
as gold foil -- in some cases bearing inscriptions -- to enhance
Enhancement: Amber is
commonly "heated to improve [its] clarity, color, and hardness ... [and
recently a new method was described] to produce a green color ... [in
some cases] as bright and green as peridot. ... The treatment
also reportedly hardens the amber, making it more stable." (McClure,
Kane and Sturman (2010), which see for details and original
references). In addition, they note that copal can be similarly
treated with the result "rendering its properties similar to those of
amber and making its identification as copal [rather than amber]
extremely difficult, even with advanced analytical methods." (ibid.).
not wear or store amber where it will rub against anything hard enough
to scratch it -- e.g., metal jewelry.
Some amber, as well as copal (etc.), may be attacked -- i.e., become dull -- if it comes into contact with, for example, dilute sulfuric acid, alcohol, and/or ether or similar organic solvents (including some soaps). This, of course, means that amber should not be worn when one is applying hair sprays or using perfume atomizers.
Some amber tends to darken with age under only so-to-speak normal exposure to heat and/or light. Consequently, a good precaution is not to expose it for any long periods to, for example, direct sunlight.
If an amber piece appears to need "refreshing," try cleaning it with cold or lukewarm water, using only a soft cloth. Also, in some cases, rubbing amber with a soft cloth saturated with olive oil will restore its original appearance.
Amber appears to have been picked up by man as long go as Palaeolithic time -- e.g., amber was found in the Gough's Cave archaeological site in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England. By Mesolithic time (8,000 to 6,000 B.C.), amber was fashioned into amulets, beads, and bears, elk heads etc., that were apparently worn as pendants in what is now Denmark (Clark, 1986). Amber has also been found in several other archaeological sites, dating from these periods -- e.g., in Austria, the High Pyrenees, Moravia, Rumania and Schleswig-Holstein. Consequently, amber has been referred to as the "golden gem of the ages" and is thought to have been "sought ... by ancient Stone Age sun worshipers because its beautiful radiance resembled the sun's rays" (Rice, 1980, p.3).
More recently, amber has had a long history of
use as amulets, talismans and as a curative for all sorts of ills. A
of such uses is given by Fraquet (1987). Two examples follow: Some ancient people thought
amber beads, if worn by babies, would aid their teething; [and]
also believed that amber jewelry and ornaments, if worn or carried by
anyone suffering from the pains of rheumatism, would lessen their
pains. Indeed, even today, some people believe that amber is a
good prophylactic for throat problems such as croup and even goiter. In
addition, I have been told (not confirmed) that at least some of the
the famous 16th century Dutch and Flemish artists dissolved amber and
mixed it with their colors to give them their radiant appearance;
if this is true, this also might be responsible for their current state
of preservation and appearances.
In the past, the origin of amber was long and widely associated with tears -- tears of the gods, tears of birds, tears from the sun and, of course, tears (i.e., the sap) from trees. Perhaps the best known myth relating amber to tears is the one that has Zeus using a thunderbolt to kill Phaëthon, and Phaëthon's falling to earth near the mouth of what is now the Po River, where his sisters, the Heliades, in their grief turned into the trees that shed the tears that were turned into the amber of that area. Two other myths (legends, if you prefer) of similar genre, which I consider noteworthy, are: 1.Lithuanian -- which involves the goddess Jurate, a mortal fisherman Kastytis, and the thunder god Perkunas (see www1.omnitel.net/sakmes/framese); and 2.Norwegian -- which involves the goddess Freya, the "Father God" Odin, Loki, et alii (see www.owlsdottir.com/goddess/fire/divine_origin_of_amber). Also, Pliny, the Elder (Book xxxvii), in his rather long treatment of amber (sucina), records several other interesting bits of lore about amber -- e.g., the fact that Demonstratus, an early 1st century historian and Roman senator, called amber lyncurius and considered it to be solidified lynx urine, with the brighter, darker colored amber produced by the males and the lighter colored amber by the females. For additional early suggested origins, see, for example, Munro (1981).
Amber commonly contains insects, pollen and
spores, and less commonly such things as small frogs and lizards,
feathers and mushrooms. The positions of some of the
critters -- e.g., the insects -- suggest they
were struggling to free themselves from the sticky precursor tree
resin. A particularly noteworthy example, which appears to record
what amounted to double jeopardy for some flying insects, has been
recently described as occurring within an amber from Spain:
Flying insects were entrapped in a spider web that was engulfed with
tree resin some 110 million years ago (Peñalver, Grimaldi &
Delclòs, 2006). More
recently, amber in coal-rich strata, from Alberta, Canada, which is
said to be about 80
million years old, has been found to contain dinosaur(?) and other
feathers (see McKellar et al. 2011 and also some of the "follow-up"
papers in Science.).
And, some Baltic and Burmese ambers
have found to contain minerals. Haibo et al. (2011) show
photos of Baltic amber that contains feldspar, pyrite, quartz and jet
AND a Burmese amber that contains pyrite. .
Some people consider jewelry with amber that contains insects etc. to be especially good conversation pieces. Along this line, over a period of a couple years, one lady brought piece after piece of amber-bearing jewelry to me to examine, quite obviously hoping that I would recognize some small included insect that she could show her friends; finally, in a string of beads she brought to my office I found a bead that contained a louse; when told of its presence, however, she was not pleased -- she gasped, "a louse?!?," turned up her nose, stalked out, and never returned with more amber for me to examine.
Some rock shops sell insect-bearing amber
cabochons with attached cards giving the identities of the included
insects; some specialty house catalogs even advertise what are
described and illustrated as amber enclosed fossils with each fossil
identified by its popular name and its scientific Genus and species
designations, all mounted within a frame, ready for hanging. [By the
way, Ross (1998) provides some illustrations
descriptions to aid identification of inclusions in amber.] From
the ridiculous to the sublime: Because of the method of
it has long been thought that some life forms preserved in amber may
yield DNA, which could lead to
all sorts of scientific pursuits -- recall "Jurassic Park." The
recently reported "[two] droplets of spider blood in a piece of amber
[from the Dominican Republic] up to 20 million years old" found by
David Penney of the University of Manchester (U.K.) appears to
provide support for this avenue of pursuit
(www.sciencedaily.com). One of the more interesting recent studies
relates to the preservation of diverse feathers, those of birds and
dinosaurs(?), in amber that occurs in association with coal beds in
Alberta is especially noteworthy -- See
Some scholars have interpreted the seventh stone of High priests' breastplates as amber, rather than brown jasper, which is the consensus interpretation.
SIMULANTS: Many amber "counterfeits," as some amber simulants are often designated, are marketed with inclusions of animals. Two "rules of thumb" often effective so far as at least tentatively distinguishing such counterfeits from natural amber are: 1. Inclusions within natural amber are seldom perfect whereas those in counterfeits are commonly perfect and even represented as such; [and] 2. Vertebrates are rare in natural amber but relatively common in counterfeits.
***Amberdan - transparent yellow-brown plastic that resembles amber and is sometimes marketed with, for example, included insects or parts thereof as an amber. - [emits plastic odor when heated -- e.g., when touched with a hot point).
***Amberina - name, formerly a trademark, for a transparent, so-called art glass with colors ranging from light ruby red to pale amber. - [Glass has a higher luster and specific gravity and a greater hardness than amber.].
***Amberoid (also spelled ambroid) - another name for pressed amber (see below).
***Bakelite - [higher specific gravity; sinks in water].
***Bernat - an amber colored plastic, sometimes
made to include plant and/or insect matter, apparently
manufactured in Germany. - [general appearance and higher specific gravity (~1.23)].
***Casein - [higher specific gravity; sinks in water].
***Cubic zirconia - yellow and red Buddha statuettes that consist of cubic zirconia have been marketed as amber carvings in Thailand (Fritsch, 2004). - [higher specific gravity; Appearance should suffice.]
Dyed horn, avian bills, etc. - [Appearance and texture differ from those of amber.].
Glass, with appropriate colors - [higher
specific gravity; cooler to the touch than amber].
Kauri gum with artificially embedded modern
lizards -- kauri is a natural resin; those with with artificially
embedded modern lizards, are "known to have been manufactured at the
beginning of the 20th century" apparently using New Zealand kauri (Hänni, 2005). - [identification
of kauri is as mentioned under the Other Names subheading;
identification of the lizards as modern probably require a vertebrate
***Polybern - polyester resin containing amber chips. - [breccia-like appearance; sometimes requires observation with lens].
Prehnite - massive yellow prehnite from Greenland "could easily be mistaken for amber at first glance" (Johnson et al., 2000, p.74), so I suspect that it might sometime, some place be marketed as some kind of '... amber.'" - [Prehnite's superior hardness and greater specific gravity easily distinguish it from amber.].
***Pressed or reconstructed amber (and also copal) - these materials, especially common as marketplace souvenirs, are produced by heating and applying pressure to relatively small fragments of scrap or so-to-speak inferior amber or copal thus welding them together to produce larger pieces; a bonding material such as linseed oil or a clear plastic is sometimes added either along with or in lieu of heating during application of the pressure. - [When examined closely using transmitted light, this material may have zones that exhibit noteworthy differences of color and/or transparency; also, it commonly contains elongate bubbles.]. (Along this line, so-called inferior amber and amber scrap has also been used to produce amber rosin, amber oil and amber varnish, which some people consider to be superior to synthetic varnishes.)
Resins (natural ones such as colophony, gutta-percha and sandarac) - several that have reached the brittle state have been incorrectly termed amber. - [When a drop of ether, chloroform or alcohol is placed on most natural resins, they are dissolved and a dull spot appears whereas typical amber is not so-affected.].
***Synthetic resins - e.g., catalin, cellon, celluloid, erinoid, galalith and rhodoid - [Each of these materials has a specific gravity between 1.25 and 1.45, which is greater than that of amber; all tend to be sectile as compared to the typical brittle quality of amber; and, upon heating, nearly all resins emit an odor that is quite different from that of amber -- i.e., most resins emit an unpleasant (e.g., rancid) odor whereas amber tends to emit a sweetish aroma.].
NOT SIMULANTS , but appropriately mentioned here :
A Baltic amber cabochon with what on first view appeared to be an included insect that is, instead, an insect carved on its base (Koivula, Kammerling and Fritsch, 1992).
An illustrated bead, which looks like amber with included carpenter ants, that consists of ant-shaped forms made of black lacquer atop a clear laquer-coated ambercore -- this bead, with the unbelievably natural-appearing "ants," was apparently produced in the 1980s by the Japanese ojime-maker Tomizo Saratani (Lui, 1995, p.215).
An "amber insect pin," offered for sale in a 2002 catalog of a marketer, widely considered to be of high repute, consists of a green amber cabochon set in a silver pin shaped like an insect. -- To elaborate, "insect" in the advertisement refers to the shape of the pin. Considering many people's desire to own jewelry with amber in which insects are preserved, this advertisement is a sales gimmick -- artifice, if the reader prefers -- that in my opinion can be characterized best as duplicity.
Soap -- Among soaps made and distributed by Rogue River Soaps & Supplies is one called “Amber in Honey Almond (the flavor)” that appears to resemble amber rather closely (www.rogueriversoaps.com).
REFERENCES: Several publications
have appeared since Philippo Jacobo Hartmann's 1677 book "Succini
Prussici Physica & Civilis Historia ..." A statement by
Grabowska (1983, p.6), which I suspect is probably consistent with the
experience of anyone who has read or scanned even as few as the nearly
100 publications I have, is well worth repeating: "A bibliography of
works on amber would contain about 13,000 titles ...
in the oldest dissertations on amber, there is as much legend as
truth, as much story-telling as history, as many bright ideas as
academic concepts." Today (May 11, 2005), a Google search
indicated "Results ... of about 18,900,000" for
amber. In any case, three fairly recently published books by
Grabowska (1983), Fraquet (1987) and Rice (1987) include particularly
noteworthy and good general information; and, for
information about related resins (etc.) see Barry (1932).
The article by Santiago-Blay and Lambert (2007) is especially
noteworthy so far as recent research efforts involving amber. For
more than one might want to know about amber, including
several erroneous -- at least misleading -- bits of information, see
www.websters-online-dictionary.org/definition/english/am/amber. A recent article that treats Ahe
materal "Green amber" in particular includes a summary of the
structural and a few of the other differences between amber and copal
(see Abduriyim et al., 2009). Some of this so-called green amber
is apparently produced from copal, and upon such treatment the product
cannot easily be distinguished from amber per se (McClure, Kane and
Sturman, 2010). For another report of research in progress that
seems likely to lead to interesting information about amber, see
R. V. Dietrich © 2012
Updated 20 July 2012
web page created by Emmett Mason