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Warm luminosity and flecked hues make amber a fascinating and unique gem. Its perfection lays precisely in the imperfections of its tiny crevices, irregular tonalities and the occasional presence of plants or insects suspended in resin for millions of years. Whether extracted from sea or mountains, Amber is a precious jewel, a powerful source of protection, and an intriguing time capsule.
What is amber?
Amber is a truly unique gem. It’s a mineral of organic origin consisting of fossilized, or polymerised, tree resin. This resin was produced by trees typically found in tropical and subtropical climates which have been extinct for millions of years.
Vast quantities of resin would collect within the plant whenever it was required to heal cuts, cavities or wounds; alternatively the resin would seep out of the tree when it was needed to protect the plant from pathogenic fungi or lithophagous insects. When resin trickled from the tree to protect it from parasites such as spiders, mosquitoes or other small insects, it would ingurgitate these predators making them part of the mineral to be.
Characteristics of amber
What makes amber an unusual mineral is that it not only feels warm but it is also light. Its natural imperfections and creases fascinate us not only because of their beauty and uniqueness, but also because thanks to the occasional presence of insects, seeds, leaves and more they are precious windows on a distant past.
Amber can be translucent or opaque, and its colouring ranges from yellow to red, white, orange, green, brown and even blue. Baltic amber alone accounts for over 256 tones. These different colours depend on the composition of the amber, the typology of the tree it came from millions of years ago and also on the surrounding environment in the course of the gem’s polymerisation.
Types of amber
Different types of amber are classified according to provenance and colour. We can firstly distinguish between translucent amber and opaque amber. This is then further classified according to its colour into yellow, red, brown, green, blue or white amber.
Yellow and red amber are the most common. The former is common in the Baltic Sea areas, and is in fact known as Baltic amber, whereas red amber is widespread in the Chiapas region and is commonly known as Mexican amber. Finally, amber originating from the Dominican Republic is characteristically blue and has a waxen shimmer to it, and is labelled Dominican amber.
There are a few easy tests one can carry out to verify whether a gem is genuine amber:
The floatation test: immerse the gem in a saturate solution consisting of salt and water; genuine amber will float.
The temperature test: heat amber on a naked flame; genuine amber will not blacken, rather it will become scorching hot, and emit an inebriating scent.
The solubility test: firstly, amber will not dissolve in water and, furthermore, if the gem comes into contact with acetone, genuine amber will have no reaction to the liquid.
The ultraviolet light test: under UV light, genuine amber will appear fluorescent.
Where can amber be found?
The principal deposit of amber is found in northern Europe, more specifically along the Baltic Sea coast. It is estimated that two thirds of the world’s reserves of amber are found here, and that 90% of all amber used to create jewellery and in the decorative arts also originates from the Baltic Sea area.
The largest extraction plant is found in Russia, but there are also large deposits in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. In other parts of the globe, significant deposits are found in the Dominican Republic, in Italy (more specifically in Sicily), in Mexico (Chiapas) and in Burma.
The average amount of amber produced each year varies notably from area to area. Along the Baltic Sea coastline, for example, over 600 tonnes of amber are produced yearly, while Mexico produces one.
How is amber mined?
Extraction techniques vary and depend on the typology of deposits and financial resources available. In southern Mexico, for instance, there are approximately twenty mountainous deposits in which miners dig narrow tunnels using manual tools operated by candle light. In the Baltic Sea area, on the other hand, amber is found at sea. Gems may spontaneously detach from the sea bed and can either be collected as they come afloat, or can be found lying on beaches if washed ashore by waves or currents. If extraction requires human intervention, this is done by means of dredges, pincers and nets.
Properties of amber
Amber is a powerful protector and has numerous healing properties. It merely has to be worn or held close to the body for it to bestow a warming sense of wellbeing and peace.
In allopathic medicine amber is used to boost the immune system, as an anti- inflammatory or for pain relief when in contact with the skin.
Amber is used to balance emotions, release negative energy and clear the mind. It is reputed to have a calming and relaxing influence, helping overcome phobias and fears. Furthermore, it may provide psychological support when fighting depression by enhancing optimism and the ability to make decisions.
Amber has an electromagnetic charge which is reputed to affect the human body. Its positive effects are that it may encourage the healing of bruises and small wounds, contrast respiratory diseases and support the musculoskeletal system for the relief of back and joint ache.
This gem is also recommended for children, as it is calming and aids sleep. In eastern European countries amber is also used to ease teething pain in babies.
Its elements are Fire and Akasha. Fire is associated with the spheres of energy and strength (especially will, courage, conquest and purification). While Akasha is symbol of life and longevity, it corresponds to the fifth element which connects and presides over the other elements (Air, Fire, Water and Earth).
Amber corresponds to the third chakra, Manipura, that of the belly button and solar plexus.
Art and amber - the Amber Room
The Amber Room was one of its kind, a luxurious rectangular room covered in mirrors, mosaics and exquisitely ornate amber panels backed with gold leafs. It used to be lit by 565 candles which would reflect the warm honey coloured panels and create a sparkling jewel box for anyone visiting the room. The Amber Room was testimony to the opulence of the Russian Empire of the period. Construction first begun in 1701, and was only finished in 1770. It never stayed on the same site as it was moved several times and was also unfortunately subject to looting and destruction. It was initially installed in the Charlottenburg Castle, which belonged to the first king of Prussia, and was later offered as a gift from the King of Prussia to Peter the Great (Peter I Romanov, czar and emperor of Russia), as a homage to the peace and allegiance between Russia and Prussia. In consequence, it was moved to the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, and subsequently, by order of Empress Catherine II, relocated to the Summer Palace in Zarskoe Selo. Here, in 1941 it was ransacked following Germany’s invasion during WW2, and become a symbol of the raids of Russian national treasures on the part of the Nazis. Within 36 hours the Amber Room was packed in 27 cases and transferred to Königsberg on the Baltic coast. Here, following the Allies’ bombardments, all traces of the room were lost. Many say that it may be possible that the remains of the precious Amber Room sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea, and are now sitting on the same deposits they originated from.
Around the world and across history
In Greek mythology: According to mythology, when Phaethon (son of the sun god Helios and the nymph Klymene) died, the Heliades (his seven sisters), were so distraught that the gods were moved to compassion by their tears. The gods transformed the Heliades into white poplars and the tears they cried oozed from the trees becoming amber gems.
In Mexico: Amber has been used in southern Mexico since ancient times. In fact, in the past the Maya used to wear amber as their chosen gem. Even today amber is utilised in most of central America to purify the soul, ward off the evil eye and in to prepare votive and curative potions.