Amber’s warmth and rich glow convinced our earliest ancestors that it was petrified sunlight. Later, others believed it to be the hardened tears of a goddess. Those who were more earthy described amber as fossilized lynx urine.
They’re all partially correct in one respect – amber was once a natural, living substance.
Forty to sixty million years ago, forested land existed where the Baltic Sea is now. Trees in those forests exuded resin, which gradually ran down their trunks and accumulated in puddles on the ground. As the land shifted, the resin puddles were eventually buried deep underground. Eons later, the sea covered the land. The tremendous weight of land and water pressed the tree resins into solid masses. Continued weight over the millennia caused further molecular changes in the solid resin, allowing it to harden into what we now call amber.
Eventually, bits and pieces of amber floated to the surface, where humankind discovered them. Soft and easy to carve, amber quickly became a favored talisman against evil. Its ability to generate static electricity when rubbed further contributed to its reputation for supernatural powers. Early healers also used amber for a variety of ailments, including asthma, goiter, headaches, and ulcers.
Although amber is usually yellow, brown, or orange, it ranges in color from nearly white to almost black. Most amber darkens to a rich red-brown as it ages. Tiny bubbles of trapped gases can give it a cloudy appearance.
One of the earliest known amber imitators, copal (kauri gum) is still used today. Copal, like amber, is fossilized tree resin. It is, however, only thousands, rather than millions, of years old. Some “amber” beads found in Egyptian tombs were made from copal.
Amber and copal both feel warm when handled. Both emit a “piney” odor when heated. They are both lightweight and float in water. A drop of ether placed on amber usually does not affect it, but will make copal sticky. (Don’t substitute acetone for ether – acetone dissolves amber.)
Glass and plastic are also used to imitate amber. Glass won’t float, as amber does; and plastic, when touched with a hot point, emits a strong, acrid smell rather than amber’s pleasant piney fragrance. Egyptian, Afghanistan, and Somali amber are all plastic imitations. Some earlier plastics, like Bakelite?, were hard. Amber beads will show wear in the holes when strung. Bakelite? beads, even those strung and worn for many years, do not show any wear or chipping.
Various seeds and nuts may be dyed and sold as vegetable or plant amber. Horn is another substance dyed to look like amber. Some of these substances might float, but none will carry an electrical charge or pass the hot point test.
Ambroid, although classified as imitation, is made from real amber. Also known as pressed amber or reconstituted amber, ambroid is made from scraps and shavings generated by amber carvers. The tiny pieces are collected and heated, then pressed into large blocks.
Because it has been heated, ambroid does not darken with age. When amber was still a resin seeping down trees, it was sticky. Debris and insects that landed on it couldn’t escape the stickiness and were preserved when the resin changed to amber. Insects found in amber and copal usually have broken wings or missing body parts, torn off as they struggled to escape. Insects in imitation amber are usually dead when embedded and are often whole.
Because it was buried long before the sea covered it, no fish or other kind of marine life has ever been found in real amber.
Heat is amber’s greatest enemy, and it should never be placed in hot water or against hot surfaces. Hair spray and perfume permanently dull amber. Because amber is soft and wears easily, protect it from rubbing or bumping against itself or other jewelry. Wrap it in a soft cloth when not wearing or displaying it. Remove light soil with a soft cloth dipped in lukewarm water. Avoid jewelry cleaning solutions or other solvents.
Humans have treasured amber since they first picked up nuggets of it on the seashore thousands of years ago. Those who wear amber today find themselves continually handling it – enjoying the warmth and beauty of “petrified sunlight.”