Amber is a beautiful warm stone, usually varying in colour from honey-yellow to rich orange and dark brown. Less typically, it can also be white, black, blue or green. It is made of the time-hardened fossilized resin of pine trees. This makes it an organic (‘living’) gemstone. As such it varies from about 20 to 60 million years old, according to different sources.
It is quite light and warm to the touch, and readily produces static electricity when rubbed. In fact, it was known to the ancient Greeks as elektron, from which we coined the word electricity. The metal electrum was also named after it, being similar in colour to amber.
In the Middle Ages in Germany, amber was burnt as an aromatic incense - hence there it is known as bernstein.
It was so popular in Roman times that armies were sent to conquer and control amber-producing areas - in fact the Roman historian Pliny reported that the price of a small amber figurine always exceeded the price of a healthy slave! It even had its effect on notoriously hard-hearted historical figures - the Emperor Nero was a great connoisseur of amber.
The best amber is usually clear and translucent, but inclusions can in fact enhance its beauty, rarity and value. Some inclusions take on interesting shapes (they are most commonly compared to the shape of nasturtium leaves); these are known as sun spangles and often add to the attractiveness of the amber. Some amber contains naturally occurring gas bubbles, and as this has the appearance of goose fat, it is known as fatty amber. White or whitish amber is sometimes called bone amber.
Treatment of amber
Treatments for amber are largely to increase its clarity. Heating amber in rape seed oil penetrates the air spaces and increases the clarity. This can result in sun spangles developing - far from being an unwanted side effect, however, these inclusions are an attractive end-product and are often produced deliberately.
Excellently preserved specimens of extinct insects and plant material can be found in amber. These are valuable evidence for geologists and zoologists and, for many people, add interest to amber as jewellery. Unexpectedly, there has been a huge increase in the demand for amber jewellery since the launch and popularity of the film Jurassic Park in 1993, which highlighted the fascination and possibility of this antique stone.
Amber in Jewellery
Amber was among the first stones used as human adornment. It is occasionally faceted, but is usually cut or polished as cabochon or as beads, to emphasise the warmth of its colour and smoothness of surface. Its light weight makes it ideal for use as large stones in rings, pendants, bracelets and earrings and is often set in silver.
The majority of amber comes from the Baltic States and the Dominican Republic - it is carried far by the Baltic sea and can be found in places as dispersed as Norway, Denmark and the east coast of Britain. Amber from the Baltic States is older, but amber from the Dominican Republic is more likely to have insect inclusions. Amber prices can range from $20 to $40,000 or more.