Approximately thirty to ninety million years ago, large strands of forests in some parts of the world began to seep globs of sap. This sticky, aromatic resin leaked down the sides of trees. It filled internal fissures and trapped debris such as seeds, leaves, feathers and insects. As geologic time progressed, the forests were buried and the resin hardened into a soft, warm, golden gem which became to be known as AMBER. Amber is a fossilised resin of ancient trees which forms through a natural polymerisation of the original organic compounds. It is found in nature in lumps of varying sizes and irregular shapes, in manifold colours. It is thrown up out of the sea by waves or is obtained as a fossil from underground deposits. It dates from the early Tertiary period, in the Epocene epoch, and is thus 45-50 million years old. The name given to this lustrous fossil resin derives from the Latin succinum, which means amber. Amber is known to mineralogists as succinite.
The Greek name for amber is elektron, the origin of the word electricity and its peripherals. Amber is a poor conductor of heat and feels warm to the touch. Heating amber will soften it and eventually it will burn, a fact that has given rise to the name of bernstein, by which the Germans know amber.
The interest raised by amber incorporates numerous experts, all deriving from various disciplines. The geologists and palaeontologists are interested in amber because it is a fossil and evidence of prehistoric life. Organic chemists investigate the physical and chemical properties. Botanists and entomologists examine the botanical sources of amber and the embalmed insects and debris. Gemologists and jewellers desire amber for its beauty and rarity. Research by chemists has brought us closer to a definitive explanation of the origin of amber. Archaeological research conducted in Italy, Bulgaria and Russia has identified the trade routes by which amber reached Southern Europe and the East.
Amber consists of certain physical properties and exclusive characteristics which contribute to its special mystique. It is not surprising that Amber was regarded as something extraordinary. The lustrous fossil resin is warm to touch, it is often transparent and resembles a gem.
The composition varies depending on the type of tree, although all have terpenes or compounds that are linked as the resin hardens to amber.
The colour of amber is not its constant property. It darkens due to the weather and varying temperatures. The outer surface, most exposed to the weather, becomes covered with a network of cracks, which create a brittle layer called the crust. It is often brown, dark red or reddish-brown. Natural amber, regardless of colour, may darken to a mellow brown after long exposure to air. The colours are varying shades of yellow, orange, red, white, brown, green, bluish and black. The colour is related to the type of the tree source. Recent pine trees produce golden yellows, white, ivory-colours and occasionally a blue resin. Some pieces of amber show fluorescence. The common fluorescent colours of amber are blue or yellow, and less frequently a green, orange or white. Amber colour preferences vary from country to country. The transparent reds and greens are thought to be the most desirable colours in some countries, followed by the transparent yellows. The warm, transparent, orange colour seems to be a desirable colour for many Americans. The transparency of amber depends on its internal structure. Amber has all graduations from perfectly clear to wholly opaque, with cloudy turbidity due to the presence of numerous air bubbles and inclusions. The formation of these air bubbles remains a secret of amber. Opaque yellow or white amber has a foamy structure. Its colour and degree of transparency depend on the size and position of the bubbles.
The tenacity and fracture of amber is tough to brittle. For its low hardness, amber is remarkably tougher than most gemstones of a similar hardness. Baltic amber tends to be tougher than retinite amber. Dominican amber tends to be more brittle and break more easily than other ambers.
The Baltic Sea region has been the original source for amber since Prehistoric times. Although it is not known exactly when Baltic amber was first used, it can be linked to the Stone Age when it was used for decoration. Amber of Baltic origin was found in Egyptian tombs that date back to 3200 B.C., establishing the archaeological barter and trade routes. Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have some 100 Neolithic burial sites in which amber is included. European sea trade was dominated by the Vikings from 800-1000 A.D., with the “gold from the north” and Scandinavia continues to be a major exporter of amber today.
Baltic amber’s unmatched beauty and magical properties have contributed to its special mystique over the centuries. Baltic amber, noted for its hardness, excellent colour and clarity is considered to be the finest for jewellery.
On the southeastern tip of Sweden, as well as several islands in the Baltic, it is collected off the beaches, especially after the storm.
Along the northwest side of the Gdansk Bay in Poland, baltic amber is frequently found in the layer in which it formed. Amber handicraft, initially only for the privileged, reached the peak of its development in the 16th and 17th century workshops in Gdansk. It attracted the interest of kings and princes.
Amber deposits were somewhat depleted by the end of World War II, although they can still be found all along the Baltic coastline and somewhat inland.
The amber rich, blue earth layer extends into Lithuania, bordered by the productive Kaliningrad area. This country has one of the largest Amber museums in the world.
Latvia, another Baltic state rich in amber, is also the site of the School of Applied Arts in the city of Liepaja. This is one of the few schools in the world that specialises in artist amber processing.
Renewed study of the collections of amber treasures in European museums will make it possible to define its role in the cultural history of the nations concentrated around the Baltic Sea. Presently, a bibliography of works on amber contains over 1,300 titles.
Carbonization is another means of preserving a fossil of organisms that might not otherwise be preserved, including a record of soft body parts (leaves are commonly preserved by carbonization). In this case, once the material is buried the pressure of the load of overlying sediment "squeezes" out the liquid and gaseous material within the tissue and what remains is a thin film of carbon (the formation of coal from wood is an extreme case of carbonization whereby much more than a thin film of carbon remains). The film of carbon preserves details of the external form of the fossil. With the carbonization of leaves harder parts such as stems, may also be preserved by replacement or pretification. In some cases if the carbon film is lost by some means the remaining fossil is just a faint impression along a surface within the encasing rock.
The preservation of delicate organisms, such as insects, requires almost immediate removal from the threat of destruction following death. One way in which they are preserved is by becoming encased in tree resin, or sap. Running sap may encase a living insect and when it hardens (usually within a few days) the dead insect is trapped within a solid, protective case. Preservation of the sap will, in turn, preserve the fossil insect. Amber is fossilized tree resin and insects are not uncommon within masses of amber.