Antique Amber – Nature’s Gold


Amber is a fascinating gemstone that not only serves as a beautiful semi-precious gem, but in some cases, allows us a glimpse of life millions of years ago. Classified as an organic gemstone (gems that are either made from or by a living creature, such as coral or pearls), amber originates from tree resin that oozed from pine trees millions of years ago and then fossilized over the eons. When secreted from a tree, resin is thick and sticky. Consequently, insects, plant matter, or other organic materials often became stuck in the resin and then as the tree continued to ooze, the item was encapsulated and fossilized along with the resin itself. While much organic material is fragile and easily decays, the resin preserved the encased material, protecting it from oxygen and moisture allowing it to survive to the present day for us to learn from and enjoy.

David Federman, author of the Consumer Guide to Colored Gemstones, said it best, stating that “amber is like a time capsule made and placed in the earth by nature herself.” This unique characteristic of amber is responsible for the identification of more than 1,000 extinct species of insects that would otherwise be unknown. There is a similar substance called “Copal” which is also hardened tree resin, but it is only thousands of years old. In order to be called amber, the resin has to be millions of years old. The oldest amber that has been found dates to about 320 million years old.

Over the millennia, amber has been used by prehistoric peoples for adornment and as a form of currency, as indicated by its discovery in archaeological excavations. Beads dating to between 11,000 and 9,000 years ago indicate that people were finding and manipulating amber as far back as the Neolithic period. Thousands of years later, the appearance of amber in locations far removed from its origin demonstrate how valued it was as an ancient commodity. For example, Baltic amber was found in an Egyptian tomb dating to 3,200 BCE, beads were discovered in the shaft graves of Mycenae in Greece (early 16th century BCE) and amber was so desired by the Romans, particularly the emperor Nero, that in 60 A.D., he sent an expedition into the region now known as Germany for the express purpose of bringing back amber. During the Middle Ages, the collection of amber along the Baltic coast was so heavily policed that gallows were constructed and amber “pirates” collecting amber without permission were hung on the spot.

Today, a piece of amber can range in price from $ 20 to $ 40,000 or more, depending on the size of the piece, the quality of the stone, and what is trapped inside. Pieces with preserved insects or other life forms demand the highest prices. The color of amber can vary from different shades of yellow to red and from green to blue, but the most common color is a golden brown, similar in color to honey. While much of the amber used today is either Baltic amber, coming from the area around the Baltic coast, or Dominican amber from the Dominican Republic, there are deposits of amber in other locations around the world. The color of amber can indicate its origin: Baltic sources yield amber in varying shades of yellow; Sicilian amber has reddish tones; Romanian amber tends to be mostly brown; Burmese can range from yellow to reddish-brown tones and Dominican amber is florescent, with some having a blue tone.

If you own any amber jewelry, please be aware that amber is one of the softer gemstones and it is easily scratched, so it is important to take care when wearing it and to store it separately from other jewelry in a jewelry organizer so that it does not rub against anything else. If your amber jewelry needs cleaning, use water and a mild soap and dry with a soft cloth. Do NOT use any chemical cleaners and be sure to put your jewelry on after applying hairspray or perfume (this is a good rule to follow with any type of jewelry).