Amber Golden and Ambergris

Carved Amber Dinosaur HatchlingWith Jurassic World inspiring visions of mosquito embedded amber and #cephalopodweek on Science Friday it seemed like a good time to take a look at amber. (It connects, really, at least in my head…)


Amber is fossilized tree resin from extinct conifers, not sap from deciduous trees. It is found as lumps and nodules, sometimes as pebbles on beaches and in sedimentary rocks.


The most common color is golden/pale orange versions but can be blue, green or red. (So called black amber is actually jet. Which is fancy coal, not tree resin at all!)


There are two different types of amber. Baltic amber comes from one group of ancient trees and the American and African from another family of trees. 90% of amber still comes from the south and east coasts of the Baltic.


Amber is only a little denser than sea water, so it can travel great distances by water. Amber from the Baltic has been found on the coast of England.


Amber got its name from anbar- the Arabic word for what is called ambergris.


Ambergris- ‘gray amber’ is a solid, waxy substance that is the remains of the indigestible parts of the giant squids secreted by sperm whales. Historically it was used as a perfume fixative, though in the past few decades it has mostly been replaced with synthetic alternatives.*


(Giant Squid and Sperm Whale sculpture, American Museum of Natural History, NYC)

Since it is a whale waste product, ambergris is legal in some countries and illegal in others depending on how they translate the endangered status of sperm whales. Its status is ambiguous enough that it is still hard to tell which high end perfumes used it and which still so.


There is some speculation that they shared a name since both were light in weight, rare, valuable and found washed on the sea shore. (And sometimes burned as incense.)


The gem was called white or yellow amber to differentiate it. It became the default amber as ambergris was used less and picked up the color meaning even more recently.


Amber as a gem has a long history.

(Carved Medusa, Getty Museum.)

Elektron was the ancient Greek name for amber. (When rubbed, amber can produce an electric charge-hence our word electricity.) Pliny discussed the legends about amber, one myth had it tears of daughters of the sun and another that is was hardened rays of the sunset, but he also shows how at least some Greeks knew what it was. He described it as the juice of pine trees and figured out that it had once been a liquid before gradually hardening.


True to its origins amber has a resin like texture and splinters like resin as well. It was a sticky substance so often has many inclusions, including the famous trapped insects. It can be of scientific interest, since amber can provide a small sampler of ecosystems long past. It preserves parts of organisms that would otherwise never have fossilized.

When found with lots of little bubbles inside its sometimes called nebulous amber.


Since amber (like most organic gems) is relatively soft it is normally polished and carved rather than faceted like many mineral gems.


The two fakes you’re most likely to run across with amber are copal and plastic.


Copal is tree resin on its way to becoming amber. It can be only a few hundred years old. It is made of the same thing as amber, but still has oils and alcohols in it. In amber, these have evaporated long ago. The liquid content makes copal even softer than amber, and since they’re still evaporating copal is more likely to crack or craze across the surface. If you put a drop of nail polish remover on copal it will make it sticky, but it won’t affect amber.


Plastic is probably the most common fake-it has a similar texture and density. You can text a piece by heating a needle and applying it to the piece. Amber will give off a piney smell and plastic will have an acrid stench. Probably the simplest method is the whole ‘if it’s too good to be true it probably is’ deal. Amber offered with whole insects or even salamanders at a low or even moderate price should be viewed with suspicion. Items like that could run from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.


You can visit here for a lot more on amber, including several videos.

* Bill Bryson described it picturesquely as ‘dousing yourself in distillate of unseen sea monster.’

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