Posted on 04 May 2017
Amber’s coloring and other-worldly quality often have people questioning where the stone is derived from and whether or not it should be categorized as a crystal, a mineral, or a fossilized rock. The truth of the matter is that the stone has very interesting origins that can be traced back centuries. While most vendors who sell amber gemstones choose to focus on its known healing properties, the stone itself has a far more interesting story.
What is Amber?
The short answer is that amber is a fossilized derivative of extinct trees. The long answer is that the resin found in those now-extinct trees is thought to have functioned in a similar fashion to the resin residing in conifers. This means that the resin would have acted as a sealant by coursing down and through the limbs and trunk of a tree, sealing off cuts to protect the tree from harmful bacteria, fungus, and other threats to its livelihood. Let’s just say that if a tree were a human, the trunk would be its epidermis and the resin would have served as its sticky band-aid.
How did Amber get here?
There are two ways in which the coniferous resin became what we now know to be the solid, rock-like substance, amber. One way is through the decaying of these now-extinct trees, which would decompose, leaving their sap behind. The other theory is that the resin would fall from healthy trees onto the ground in clumps. Either way, over the years it is said that the grounded sap was buried under the earth, where pressure was applied to it for millions of years, eventually transforming it into a dense, hard substance. Violà! Amber was born.
Is Amber a fossil?
In a way, yes, it is. Amber is the relic of a past that extends as far back as 95 million years ago. In fact, most amber excavated today is roughly 30-95 million years old. Resin composites that are identified to be younger than that are usually of a softer consistency and are referred to as “copal”.
There’s also the fact that amber has been known to harbor the bodies of insects and other animals that were alive way back when the rock was just a sticky substance known as resin. As the resin made its way slowly down the trunk of a tree, small bugs and animal residue residing on the tree would sometimes get caught in it. Because of the molasses-like consistency of the resin, the animal would be entombed in the material, ultimately solidifying along with the substance. Now that the resin has hardened into amber, those insects and debris from other animals (e.g., feathers, hair, etc.) can now be found perfectly preserved in the stone.
As you can imagine, scientists have had a field day with the discovery of amber and the petrified remains found inside the stone. Many of the insects found in the substance are even extinct. Luckily, scientists have created a method, which allows them to break open the amber and obtain the specimen for further testing and research. All of this brings us one step closer to better understanding what life was like dozens of millions of years ago in comparison to how it is now.
How is “Baltic Amber” different?
The name “Baltic amber” refers mainly to the region from which this amber is derived: the land around the Baltic Sea. It is currently estimated that the coniferous trees in this region created hundreds of thousands of tons of amber. Therefore, it’s no surprise that 90% of the world’s amber comes from Kaliningrad Oblast, a small federal subject of Russia located on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
The main difference between this type of amber in comparison to amber obtained from other areas is that Baltic amber is approximately 8% succinic acid, which is why amber from the Baltic region is also referred to as “succinite”. This acid has a chemical make-up that allows materials incorporating it to act as an anti-inflammatory object for humans, thereby giving Baltic amber anti-inflammatory properties.
How is Amber used?
Humans have used amber in various ways and for many different reasons for thousands of years. Superficially, amber was and is still used for decorative purposes. Dating as far back as 1701, Frederick I of Prussia had an “amber room” built using wall panels that were outfitted with amber mosaics and other ornate detailing. These mobile panels were eventually used to line the interior the King’s abode before being gifted to Peter the Great in Russia.
The stone has also been used for jewelry, which is still a popular custom. Many artisans use the tawny colored stone to make beaded necklaces, bracelets, and other fine jewelry.
The gem was also used by the ancient Greeks to promote good health. Amber, and Baltic amber more specifically, is still worn to this day by those looking to reap the benefits of its known analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Amber is even used in the construction of smoking devices, such as tobacco pipes. This has been the case for centuries, as Russians in the 19th century were known to smoke tobacco through pipes made with amber mouthpieces.
It’s clear that amber is more than just a multi-functional gemstone with an interesting past. The relic also carries pertinent information about ancient civilizations, harbors various health benefits, and remains beautiful to behold. Also, due to the artifacts entombed in the substance, by asking the question “where does amber come from?” in a way we’re able to answer the question “how did we get to where we are today?”.
It’s not every day that you can wear a piece of jewelry that contains materials from an entirely different civilization, as well as properties that can help ease your child’s teething pain. What can we say? Baltic amber truly is a natural wonder.