In June, 2000, Jolique
embarked on a quest to find a piece of that magic substance known
as amber. Her quest took her as far away as Russia. Upon her return,
she did a little research to discover why this substance is so revered.
Here's what she found out...
Right: The author
I glanced down into my wallet once
more, frowned a little and returned the old woman's gaze with a
silent nod from side to side. I was determined not to give her my
last 1400 rubles, which is exactly what she wanted for the beautiful
amber necklace that lay in front of me. It was unlike any of the
other hundreds of amber necklaces I'd seen hanging in the stalls
at Moscow's Izmaylovsky Park that day. This one was unique—fifteen
honey-colored globules, each about two inches long, linked together
on a simple metal chain. Holding the necklace up to the sun and
watching the light refract off the little bubbles and bits of fossilized
plant matter, I could see why ancient Scandinavians called amber
the "gold of the North." I placed the necklace around my neck and
each liquid drop of sunlight felt warm, smooth and magical. I felt,
in a word, protected.
Much paper and ink have been spent
opining on the origins of amber. Some believed it to be condensed
sea foam, lynx urine, gallstones or wax from forest ants. According
to Ovid, ancient Greeks believed that amber's source was the tears
shed by the sisters of Phaeton,
a boy who died while driving his father's (Helios) chariot too close
to the earth, scorching it and causing the desiccation
of the Sahara.
Today, science informs us of amber's
pine resin. The process is quite amazing: injured fir and pine
trees release sap to cover their wounds, much in the way that blood
oozes and coagulates around a human wound. The sap not only forms
a scab, but it also contains disinfecting properties. Indeed, sap
was even used by ancient Greeks and Egyptians to treat human wounds.
In addition to its disinfecting properties, sap also has other uses.
While it's still soft, sap is collected and used to make turpentine.
It's also used as a flavoring in the well-known Greek wine, retsina.
Amber has been found in many parts
of the world in different geologic compositions. Not all hardened
resins can be treated alike, however. Like diamonds, true amber
takes millions of years to be created. The stone in your amber ring
or bracelet may be 20 million years old or more. Other hardened
resins, such as copal, are made from younger vintages of resin,
and as such are not considered amber. Copal is found in Africa,
South America and Asia and New Zealand. It is less hard and less
lustrous than real amber.
The most well-known type of amber
is Baltic amber—it
is found countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Because it contains
between 3% and 8% succinic acid, it is also known as succinite.
Among the other types of amber are: Rumanian amber (rumanite), Sicilian
amber (simetite), Burmese amber (burmite), Mexican amber and Dominican
Republic amber. Amber is very lightweight and feels like plastic.
Greeks called it elektron,
meaning electric, because of its tendency to create sparks when
rubbed against paper or fabric.
If you have ever seen the film Jurassic
Park, you will know that insects, minerals and plant
matter will sometimes get trapped in tree sap while it's still soft
and later become fossilized as amber. In gemology, these are called
inclusions. Mosquitos and ants are very common amber inclusions
(in Jurassic Park, a dinosaur was
cloned from blood trapped inside a mosquito's belly in
a piece of amber). Much rarer, though occasionally found, are very
Although amber is the by-product of
injured pine trees, it is sometimes associated with the ocean and
indeed is often found on shorelines. During various ice ages, glaciers
swept across Europe and elsewhere, leveling trees and other vegetation.
When the glaciers melted and water replaced the ice, many areas
that were once forests were now underwater. The amber that may have
formed on some of these trees would have floated (as amber does
in salt water) on the surface and eventually made its way to shore.
Its color, warmth and electric properties
have earned amber a reputation as a protective, magical substance.
Not surprisingly then, for thousands of years it has been burned
as incense during spiritual or religious events. When burned, amber
releases a fragrant pine scent. It has also been carved, chiseled
and sculpted into everything from tiny rosary beads to throne-like
chairs. The most extravagant gift of amber is the mysterious Amber
Room, a room with furnishings and wall
coverings made almost entirely from amber.
a mosquito trapped in amber (author's photo)
The creation of the room, begun in
the early 18th century, was intended for the Charlottenburg castle
located at that time just outside Berlin. It didn't stay there for
long. In an act of diplomacy, in 1713, Frederick William I dismantled
the room and its contents and gave it to Peter the Great (who was
visiting Prussia at the time). During World War II, the Russians
anticipated a raid on the Amber Room by the Germans and so attempted
to hide it by removing the amber furniture and covering the
amber-veneered walls with wall paper. The Germans were
not to be deterred, however. They found the room, confiscated its
contents and took it home. In 1944, however, when the allies bombed
the Germans, the room and its contents were again packed up.
Where it went from there remains a
mystery. Perhaps it was destroyed; perhaps it's lying in a torpedoed
ship at the bottom of the ocean; perhaps it's hidden in the home
of some wealthy art collector...
After a ten-minute, unsuccessful
bartering session with the weary woman behind the stall, I could
no longer ignore the fragrant smells of warm rye bread and grilled
pork shashliki that had begun to waft over from a neighboring stall.
My stomach did a couple of hunger somersaults. Giving in to my hunger,
I hastily offered my final price—980 rubles. As I had anticipated,
the lady bowed her head in polite refusal and I began to head over
to the shashliki stand. Suddenly, I heard a voice yelling at me
from behind. I turned to face a man of about forty with dark, curly
hair. Would I pay 1064 rubles? Done. Picking up the last bits of
delicious, smoke-flavored pork on my paper plate with a nibble of
rye bread, I looked down at the newly acquired purchase around my
neck and smiled. Finally I had gotten a true taste of the Baltic.
your amber jewelry real or fake? Here are few ways to tell the
difference. Real amber:
in salt water
- will release
a pine scent when pricked with a heated needle
- will be
unaffected if rubbed gently with nail polish remover
- will attract
a piece of paper (through static electricity) when
rubbed with fabric (caution: some plastic imitations of amber
will do the same thing)
What's the best
way to care for your amber? Click here
to find out!
-Dahlström, Åke and Leif Brost. The
Amber Book. Tucson, Arizona: Geoscience Press, Inc., 1995.
-Fraquet, Helen. Amber. Boston: Butterworth & Co. (Publishers)