AMBER

( Fr- ambre / karabé ; Ger - BernsteinNor - 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 resin.
    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.
    H. 2-2½
    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:

In addition, in the marketplace, ambers are frequently referred to by binomial names that consist of a color or other characteristic, which is used as an adjective, preceding the word amber.  One of my favorites is cognac amber.
 
USES:
 Jewelry (including beads, bracelets, pendants, and earrings), buttons, bangles, carvings (including chess pieces), cigarette and cigar holders, mouthpieces for pipes and brass horns (e.g., cornets), etc.  Ambers in jewelry exhibit several diverse kinds of fashioning: All of the following are relatively common -- pieces that are wholly or only partially polished, tumbled masses, cabochons, faceted stones, and carvings.  In addition, many necklaces and bracelets consist of relatively small tumbled pieces of amber of diverse colors, and several also include other -- e.g., pearl or jet -- "beads."  A relatively recently introduced use is the incorporation of amber reverse intaglios (see Glossary, Appendix B) in brooches, pendants and earrings;  those that depict roses fashioned -- reportedly in Poland -- from virtually clear Baltic amber are particularly attractive.

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 (2007, p.155) 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 peninsula.  Simetite -- 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 Myanmar(formerly Burma).    Amber not otherwise defined -- a 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 OTHER 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 blessings -- 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 to strong 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 its color.

   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.).

   Care:    Do 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 fine review 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] they 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.  Also, some insect(etc.)-bearing amber has been found to have had the insects(etc.) emplaced in the amber by artisans/fashioners of amber jewelry.  An example is described and illustrated by Singbamroong et al. (2013, p.183-184) who concluded that their study of the beads of a strand of prayer beads  "clearly indicated that these amber beads had been cored and filled with a colorless to light yellow plastic containing insects." (op.cit.,. p.184)

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 and descriptions to aid identification of inclusions in amber.]   From the ridiculous to the sublime:  Because of the method of preservation, 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].

Composites that  consist of amber, along with one or more of the following:   copal,  "artificial resins," and plastic  (many of which have incorporated organic material(s))  are recorded by Liang et al. (2013).

***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 zoologist's know-how.].

***Plastics - Amber with insect-bearing plastic inserts has been described by Moses et al. (2000), who note: "The 1993 movie Jurassic Park sparked a revival in the popularity of amber. [and]  Not surprising[ly]... amber containing insects is ... more desirable than plain amber."  More recently, Koivula and Tannous (in Moses, 2001) have described and illustrated marketplace "Jurassic Bugs" that consist of such things as mosquitos, ants and ladybugs encapsulated in plastic made to resemble amber. - [ Specific gravities of all of these are such that they sink in salt solutions.].

***Plastic S+ -  Kammerling et al. (1995) record this material as the brownish yellow plastic so-to-speak binding material in
pieces that consist of natural resins marketed as, for example, synthetic or reconstructed amber;  ironically, the reported material came from the famous natural amber locality, Gdansk, Poland. - [Because of the amount of this material present in many of these pieces, many have specific gravities such that they  sink in salt solutions.].

***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 Gambino (2011).


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Last update:  12 February 2014
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