Fascinating Amber

Posted by on Monday, November 28, 2016 · Leave a Comment 

Amber is a light, organic substance of fossilized resin that once eons ago dripped out of the bark of trees, hardened in the earth beneath and finally transported by rivers and streams to the places where it is found. It is usually yellow or orange and is often transparent. Because it is simple to carve and polish, it has been made into jewelry for thousands years. Often the public confuses amber with sap. Sap transports nutrients through the tree, while resin blocks insects and dangerous bacteria from entering between pieces of bark. In 2016, there are only 2 types of tree resins that could possibly fossilize into amber. They are the Kauri pine of New Zealand and the Hymenaea legume found in east Africa and in south and central America.

Amber is not very hard … about as hard as a fingernail and therefore can be easily scratched.

Gemstone earringsLook carefully toward the bottom section of the left earring in this pair from my collection. You will see several circular features that look like round leaves. These are called sun spangles and form when the amber is heated and then cooled. I set these pieces into 18k yellow gold bands. The rich yellow-orange color of these earrings represents the most sought after color and transparency of amber used in jewelry, and are especially beautiful when light hits the stones just right.

I have identified and appraised hundreds of collections of amber over the decades. There are many complete manufactured fakes along with natural amber that has been altered, and often these are difficult to identify, especially for consumers. Victorian jewelry and the stems of tobacco pipes often contain pressed amber, called ambroid, formed by fusing small pieces of amber under high temperature and pressure.

Here is a list of amber substitutes for buyers to be aware of.

  • Copal
  • Glass
  • Penolic resin
  • Celluloid
  • Casein
  • Modern plastics

Of all of these, modern glass is the easiest to identify because it is cold to the touch. Also glass does not scratch with a sharp pin. Amber does. Plastics represent the most common fake brought to me by consumers over the decades. Many tourists to Mexico and the Dominican Republic return with plastic amber colored beads with large faked inclusions of some living creatures, including scorpions and lizards.

Natural amber is found in many places including Myanmar, Mexico, Lebanon, Sicily, China, Borneo, Russia as well as several Baltic countries, especially around the city of Kalingrad, between Poland and Lithuania.

The earth’s insects that are found in natural amber, can create a high price and an extremely collectible and even rare gemstone and jewel. Amber hunters world-wide look for insects and animals embedded as whole creatures, and when a special piece is found, just like with rubies, emeralds and sapphires, the single piece may be sold for a year’s income.

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