Amber is a type of fossilised tree resin that has been used in jewellery since the Stone Age and is still very popular today, particularly in striking silver pendants and earrings. This organic gemstone has a long and fascinating history and is both beautiful and scientifically important.
Most famous as a transparent to translucent golden-yellow to orange gem, amber occurs in shades from almost white through yellow, orange, red, brown and almost black, as well as uncommonly in green or blue. It can also often be opaque.
One of the things that amber is most famous for is containing plant and animal matter as inclusions. Well-preserved examples are rare though, particularly identifiable insects, spiders or lizards. Their presence can hugely increase the value of a piece of amber. Such inclusions also make amber of serious scientific interest, providing valuable insights into ancient eco-systems. The ability of amber to preserve extinct species of flora and fauna in extraordinary detail has allowed hundreds of otherwise unknown species to be identified. In the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Jurassic Park’ dinosaurs were cloned using DNA from mosquitoes found trapped in amber: this is fiction of course, but it does demonstrate the value of amber to scientific research!
The most prolific source for amber is the Baltic Coast and the area around Kaliningrad in Russia: 90% of the world’s amber is recovered from this location and the source has been known since the 12th Century. Here it is mined on land and extracted from the sea floor as well as collected when it washes up on the coast: it can be found on beaches as far away as the North Sea coast of the UK. Amber is also commercially available from the Dominican Republic where it can have a strong fluorescent glow that is sometimes visible in daylight; this is also where the rare blue material is sourced. Other localities for amber include Sicily and Myanmar.
Amber forms when the resin becomes compacted beneath the ground and experiences increased pressure and temperature over a sustained period; such conditions are necessary for the resin to fossilise. The resin must be sufficiently resistant to decay to survive and eventually become amber: not all species’ resin is able to do this so only certain trees can produce amber. The process takes at least a million years (the oldest amber is over 100 million years old); younger resin that is not fully fossilised is known as copal resin and is less stable than amber. Of the material that does become amber, only a small amount is able to be used in jewellery as much of it is either too small or is plagued by impurities such as masses of bubbles which make it opaque.
Much amber that is available on the market is clarified to combat problems with opacity. This treatment involves heating the amber in oil to improve the overall transparency. Cooling too quickly during this process can cause circular stress fractures to form in the stone, although this is often done deliberately as the fractures, known as sun spangles, are considered attractive.
To make use of as much of the recovered material as possible, small fragments of amber are often manufactured into ‘pressed amber’. They are heated to soften them and then pressed together to form a single solid mass that can be shaped and polished for use in jewellery.
Amber is a soft material, measuring just 2-2.5 on the Mohs’ scale of hardness. It is also susceptible to damage from heat and pressure or acids and chemicals including cosmetics and perfumes. It is therefore best to avoid wearing your amber jewellery while using cosmetic products and to remove it before undertaking activities such as gardening or going to the gym.
We have a lovely selection of amber jewellery in stock in store and online and our experienced team of jewellers and gemmologists are always ready to help answer any questions you may have about this fascinating gemstone.