Amber is one of the world?s most popular semi-precious stones. People prize amber for its beauty and warm lustrous glow. The rich golden colours in amber inspire and delight jewellery makers of every kind. But the physical properties of amber fascinate scientists and geologists too. And the most interesting aspect of all is the way amber can trap and perfectly preserve very fragile objects over vast periods of time. An expensive piece of amber jewellery man show off a bit of leaf or part of an insect at its core. But the most exceptional examples of amber lie in scientific collections rather than in rings, brooches or necklaces. These samples contain the bodies of prehistoric insects on which a great deal of our scientific knowledge of life on earth millions of years ago is based.
At first glance Amber seems like many other semi-precious stones mined from the earth. But the origins of amber are fundamentally different. Amber is formed from the resin if trees which fossilises over millions of years. Most know deposits of amber come from species of trees which are now extinct. Some of the best amber today comes from the Baltic Sea region of Europe. This amber comes from prehistoric trees which were very similar in appearance to today?s pine and spruce species. Scientists believe that these trees produced large amounts of resin to protect themselves from insect and fungal attack. Once released from the tree, the resin dripped down the trunk to trap seeds, leaves, feathers and insects. Over millions of years the resin hardened into the translucent, golden, glowing stone we know today.
Baltic Amber is around 40 million years old. This type of amber occurs in quite large blocks that weigh up to several pounds. Poland is the largest producer of Baltic Amber. The largest ever piece of this high quality amber came from Poland and weighed an astonishing 21.5 pounds! Many deposits of amber lie in the shallow seas off Poland?s coast. Seasonal storms and tides loosen blocks of amber from the sea bed and wash them up on to the shore. Professional and amateur amber hunters scour Poland?s beaches in hopes of a spectacular find.
The trade in amber from the Baltic Sea appears to be thousands of years old. The ancient world is rich in sites where this particular grade of jewel occurs in artefacts of many types. Some of the most important classical sites for amber date back several thousands of years to the civilizations of Egypt, Iraq, Greece and Rome. However, the earliest written record for amber is relatively recent and dates to AD 92. The Chinese believe that the soul of the tiger is locked in to every piece of amber. The Tibetans call the semi-precious stone, ?pö-she?, meaning ?perfumed crystal?. The famous archaeologist Schliemann discovered large quantities of amber during his excavations of the classical city of Troy in today?s Turkey. In Britain one of the most famous and well-preserved amber treasures is the Hove Cup which dates back 1500 BC.
Despite its generic name, the chemical structure of amber is not consistent. This means there are many different chemical compounds that we label as amber. The reason for this wide variation is simple. Unlike rock, amber is an ?organic plastic? of mixed composition rather than a true mineral. This explains why amber comes in so many different shades. Depending on its source, amber can range in colour from near white through every kind of yellow, brown and red. There are even rare cases of blue and green amber occurring in sites rich in copper and sulphate deposits.
However, it is the presence of ?inclusions? that has made amber so special to so many civilizations over the centuries. Starting life as a sticky tree sap, amber is remarkable for the range of objects trapped within its depths. The most frequent inclusions are flies and other insects. These flies lived on the fungus which grew on the rotting vegetation of the original forests. The sight of these beautiful creatures, frozen forever at the heart of a luminous jewel, inspires the sense of timelessness that gives amber its aesthetic appeal.