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Amber – Prehistoric Gold And A Feast For Paleontologists

Amber has a long history, pretty long actually, going back for millions of years. It is actually a fossil dating back to the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and even before that. The oldest findings are actually 345 million years old and are in Northcumberland USA, and that is pretty amazing, isn't it?

It was one of the first materials humans used for jewelry, some 30 000 years ago. People began trading with it and make objects from it some 11 000 years ago. Around 2500 BC Mediterranean countries used it in trade, and objects from that period have been found as far away as 600 miles from its origin.

Its ability to attract electricity was early seen as magical and the word electricity actually is derived from the Greek name for Amber – Electrum.

The gem was highly priced by the Romans and Emperor Nero acquired so much of it that he covered the entire stage for the gladiator fights with it. He even priced it higher than human slaves.
In more resent times, Catherine the great of Russia created a whole room with panels and Florentine mosaic from Amber. This room was destroyed during the II world war, but is today reconstructed.

In the dark middle ages, the Knight crusaders strictly controlled the use of Amber. They forbade people to own it, and brutally punished the ones that did. They used it solemnly for religious artifacts and rosaries.
Later, in the 17th century, it had its golden age, and was frequently and lavishly used for statues, chandeliers furniture and other ways to show wealth.

Spider in amber (1)

But what on earth is Amber?
It is fossilized resin from trees living in prehistoric times, most of them in sub-tropical conditions. The areas in which Fossilized resin is found today have changed dramatically since then and are no longer sub tropical. But back then, to protect itself from insects and other organisms the plant generated resin.
On its way down the trunk of the tree, insects, leafs and other organisms often got trapped in the sticky resin, and were preserved there forever after. And THAT is what makes resin so absolutely amazing. It contains once living insects, spiders, small animals and plants that does not exist anymore but are extinct.

Not all fossilized resin contains inclusions like insects, spiders and such, but the inclusions raise the price and value of the resin substantially compared to those without it. It looks like the area in which it was created have something to say about the amount of amber with inclusions. Fossilized resin from the Dominican Republic contain substantially more inclusions than the Baltic one.

The first resin producing plants were fern trees. They grew in Devonian time when the first insects also first appeared. The oldest insect inclusion found is from the Cretaceous time, which is the dinosaurs golden period.

Fossilized resin is most known for its yellow-brown to golden color, but since it refracts many frequencies of light, some are red, green and even blue.

Although found around the globe, fossilized resin is mainly found in two locations, Baltic and The Dominican Republic.

The Baltic Amber:
This fossilized resin origins from the Baltic's sea area close to Kaliningrad, Russia, along the coast of Somaland and also in the mines of Palminken. 80% of the deposits known to the world are found here, and it dates mainly 44 million years back.

Armband Bernstein

Fossilized resin from the Baltic's is considered beautiful and extraordinary, but lots of it is enhanced to improve it's beauty. Different methods are used like: - Heating. Used to discoed fractures or to produce sun spangles like flints or scales. - Roasted with oxygen to change surface color. - Boiling oil is used to clarify a clouded gem and remove small gas bubbles. - A vacuum gas chamber/autoclave treatment or furnace heated with nitrogen or argon. - Some cabochons have a painted back to give a certain color, like green or blue.

These methods are not done to fool people, but are a standard accepted way to enhance the quality of the gem, like with other gemstones. Fossilized resin is actually considered to be a gemstone, although it is of botanic origin and not a mineral.

The not so accepted methods are when small pieces of fossilized resin are melted together under high pressure and embedded in plastic. When pressed the gem is very even in color, something real fossilized resin directly from the mines are not. There is nothing wrong with this method in general, as long as you are told what you are buying. Sadly many of these pressure created gems are sold as genuine Amber. And in a wide perspective that is what they are, but the value is not present like with a genuine one of size.

Fossilized resin from the Baltic is also referred to as Succinite, because of its high content of succinico acid. Fossilized resin from the Baltic's are mostly yellow, orange-tawny, red-tawny and rarely yellow green.

Dominican Amber:
This fossilized resin is different from the Baltic one in that it is nearly transparent, and contains a higher number of fossilized inclusions. Some of it dates back to 40 million years ago, but most is only 25 million years old. The oldest ones and hardest ones are from regions north of Santiago.

Mining Dominican fossilized resin is done through bell pitting, which is extremely dangerous, and few or no safety measures are taken for the workers. The mining has only been done for the last 50 years, due to the islands troublesome history. The fossilized resin have been there always of course, but mining it have not been a priority earlier. When the mining started, most of the gems were exported to Germany and was worked there. But eventually the Dominican republic forbade the export of the gem unless it had been partially worked in the republic.

They also have strict regulations on exporting gems with inclusions, and exports have to be approved of the National Museum of Natural History. This have limited the supply of fossilized resin with inclusions and raised the value on the pieces already on the market.

The Amber from the Dominican Republic is mostly honey colored, but red and green are found in smaller amounts. And a rare blue which is only found in these mines. Dragon dominican blue amber

The rare blue gem both is and is not blue. It is fluorescent and becomes cobalt blue under UV light, due to the present of poly-nuclear aromatic molecules. It does not look blue if the light passes through it, but when it hits the surface. So, if you put a piece of blue amber on a white sheet of paper, the white surface will refract the light through the amber and it will look yellowish. If you put the same gem onto a black paper, the light will not be refracted by the black background but by the surface of the gem, and it will appear blue. This phenomena is only present in the Dominican blue amber and not in blue amber form other places.

Fossilized resin from the Dominican Republic is not enhanced or treated in any way. It is only cut and polished as it came out of the mines. The smallest pieces is disposed of and not pressed like the Baltic's. It is therefor not industrialized but “hand made”. This, and that it is mined in small quantities plus more inclusions have made the Dominican Amber more priced than the Baltic's. What you get is 100% real fossilized resin.

Fake Amber:
Yes, of course there are fake fossilized resin made. Everything of value have a copy some where, doesn't it? One widespread fake is Copal sold as Amber. Copal is also resin, but from more resent times, and not at all fossilized. You can get Copal with inclusions, but they are from our times and not extinct and prehistoric. Therefor Copal is less valuable than real fossilized resin.

False inclusions can be made by cutting off a slice of real Amber and drill a hole in it. A bug is inserted, the hole is filled with resin and the slice is glued back on with resin. The result is a bug in fossilized resin that passes all the tests known as the real thing. These fakes are sold for thousands of dollars on the market, simply because it is so hard to see that they are manipulated. Well, the bug can probably blow the cover, but only if you know where it belongs in the evolution, and most of us don't.

Another fake is called Caribbean Amber. This is artificial colored Colombian copal, that is not even from the Caribbean, but from south America.

In the first half of the 20th century Lucite was a popular material to make imitation Amber. At a fairly reasonable price back them, these fakes are sold as colectible items today for quite high prices.

But how can you tell what is real and what is fake?
Well, there are some tests that can be done:

  1. Hot needle
    If you push a hot needle into the sample, the needle melts the material easier in Copal than in fossilized resin, and also gives up a light fragrant odor. Real Amber omits sooty fumes.

  2. Solubility
    Copal dissolves in Acetone, so if you put a drop of acetone on a sample, let it dry, and than adds another drop, the area will be sticky if it is Copal and unaffected if the sample is genuine fossilized resin.

  3. UV-light
    Amber will fluorescent a pale shade of blue under UV-light. Copal will not.

  4. Friction
    If you rub the sample with a cloth, the surface will get sticky if it is Copal. The real gem will not get sticky, but will be heavy loaded with electricity and small paper dots will stick to it. The drawback with this test, is that plastic also get electrical loaded, so if you are dealing with fakes of plastic material, this test may fail. Plastic will not pass the other ones though, so if you can do them all, you should be fairly safe.

  5. Flotation
    If you mix a specific amount of salt and lukewarm water, the Amber should float, and the Copal sink.

  6. Inclusions
    Dating and identifying the inclusions are the safest way to know what you are dealing with.

  7. Knife cut
    If you cut fossilized resin with a knife it will fracture and splinter. If Copal or other fakes, you can shave off slices without fracturing the gem.

Now, it is not easy to perform these tests for just everybody. I don't know what a dealer would say if you used needles, acetone and knifes on his samples or carried with you UV light. However I guess this applies mostly if you are going to buy real valuable Amber for high prices. But it is OK to know that fakes are frequent.

Some telltale signs you can see, like if a gem is too even in color, too clear. Also if a strand have equal looking beads. Nature is not 100% perfect. Anomalies are almost always present, and they are not always easy to fake.

If you buy a piece with an inclusion, it should be the only one existing. If there are two or more identical, they are most certainly fake.

What decides the value?
The value of fossilized resin is dependent on four things:

  • The cutting
  • The color
  • The inclusions
  • The size

  • Large pieces of Amber are hard to find, and pieces larger than 3-4 inches are probably pressed.

    Caring for your Amber jewelry:
    Fossilized resin is wrongly treated like a gemstone. This comes from a time when one did not know the difference between organic material like fossilized resin and pearl and minerals.

    Insects in baltic amber

    So the label sticks with it today. Its hardness is therefor rated like gemstones on the Mohs scale.

    It has a hardness of only 2.5 and is therefor extremely prone to scratching. It will also brake down if exposed to heat, UV-light and chemicals. You should therefor take great care to protect your Amber jewelry or beads so they are not damaged.

    Here are some easy guidelines:

    • Always wipe it clean with a soft cloth after use.
    • Keep it in a soft pouch so that it is not scratched by other jewelry in your jewelry box.
    • Keep it out of direct sunlight and other heat sources.
    • Do not wear it when you apply perfume or hairspray.
    • Do not wear it if you are in a solarium.
    • Do not use strong cleaning solutions, only lukewarm water.

    And, last but not least – use it with pride. There is only one of its kind in the world, whether it contains inclusions or not. It is old, magnificent and dignified and it deserves respect and proper caring.

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