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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 in amber

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 by historians 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 true origins—fossilized 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 small reptiles.

 

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.

Above: 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.

Is your amber jewelry real or fake? Here are few ways to tell the difference. Real amber:

  • floats 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!

Bibliography:

-Dahlström, Åke and Leif Brost. The Amber Book. Tucson, Arizona: Geoscience Press, Inc., 1995.
-Fraquet, Helen. Amber. Boston: Butterworth & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1987.

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