Amber’s warmth and rich glow convinced our earliest ancestors that
it was petrified sunlight. Later, others believed it to be the
hardened tears of a goddess. Those who were more earthy described
amber as fossilized lynx urine.
They’re all partially correct in one respect–amber was once a
natural, living substance.
Forty to sixty million years ago, forested land existed where the
Baltic Sea is now. Trees in those forests exuded resin, which
gradually ran down their trunks and accumulated in puddles on the
ground. As the land shifted, the resin puddles were eventually
buried deep underground. Eons later, the sea covered the land. The
tremendous weight of land and water pressed the tree resins into
solid masses. Continued weight over the millennia caused further
molecular changes in the solid resin, allowing it to harden into
what we now call amber.
Eventually, bits and pieces of amber floated to the surface, where
humankind discovered them. Soft and easy to carve, amber quickly
became a favored talisman against evil. Its ability to generate
static electricity when rubbed further contributed to its reputation
for supernatural powers. Early healers also used amber for a variety
of ailments, including asthma, goiter, headaches, and ulcers.
Although amber is usually yellow, brown, or orange, it ranges in
color from nearly white to almost black. Most amber darkens to a
rich red-brown as it ages. Tiny bubbles of trapped gases can give it
a cloudy appearance.
One of the earliest known amber imitators, copal (kauri gum) is
still used today. Copal, like amber, is fossilized tree resin. It
is, however, only thousands, rather than millions, of years old.
Some “amber” beads found in Egyptian tombs were made from copal.
Amber and copal both feel warm when handled. Both emit a "piney"
odor when heated. They are both lightweight and float in water. A
drop of ether placed on amber usually does not affect it, but will
make copal sticky. (Don’t substitute acetone for ether–acetone
Glass and plastic are also used to imitate amber. Glass won’t float,
as amber does; and plastic, when touched with a hot point, emits a
strong, acrid smell rather than amber’s pleasant piney fragrance.
Egyptian, Afghanistan, and Somali amber are all plastic imitations.
Some earlier plastics, like Bakelite?, were hard. Amber beads will
show wear in the holes when strung. Bakelite? beads, even those
strung and worn for many years, do not show any wear or chipping.
Various seeds and nuts may be dyed and sold as vegetable or plant
amber. Horn is another substance dyed to look like amber. Some of
these substances might float, but none will carry an electrical
charge or pass the hot point test.
Ambroid, although classified as imitation, is made from real amber.
Also known as pressed amber or reconstituted amber, ambroid is made
from scraps and shavings generated by amber carvers. The tiny pieces
are collected and heated, then pressed into large blocks. Because it
has been heated, ambroid does not darken with age. When amber was
still a resin seeping down trees, it was sticky. Debris and insects
that landed on it couldn’t escape the stickiness and were preserved
when the resin changed to amber. Insects found in amber and copal
usually have broken wings or missing body parts, torn off as they
struggled to escape. Insects in imitation amber are usually dead
when embedded and are often whole.
Because it was buried long before the sea covered it, no fish or
other kind of marine life has ever been found in real amber.
Heat is amber’s greatest enemy, and it should never be placed in hot
water or against hot surfaces. Hair spray and perfume permanently
dull amber. Because amber is soft and wears easily, protect it from
rubbing or bumping against itself or other jewelry. Wrap it in a
soft cloth when not wearing or displaying it. Remove light soil with
a soft cloth dipped in lukewarm water. Avoid jewelry cleaning
solutions or other solvents.
Humans have treasured amber since they first picked up nuggets of it
on the seashore thousands of years ago. Those who wear amber today
find themselves continually handling it–enjoying the warmth and
beauty of “petrified sunlight.”
****Sandra I. Smith, Writer ****