Money doesn’t grow on trees, but gems do. Or did.
Some 25 to 40 million years ago, in what is now the Baltic region of Europe (Poland, Latvia and Lithuania especially), towering tropical pine forests began to sweat sap profusely. Globs of this sticky, aromatic resin poured down the sides of trees, often trapping leaves, twigs, bark and, occasionally, insects in their paths, and meanwhile snowballing in size. (The same process repeated itself during a later geological epoch in what is now the Dominican Republic and, still later, in what is now Tanzania.)
Imagine, for a moment, these forests with their bejeweled floors and tree trunks. What a spectacular sight they must have been. Eventually, continental drift and an ice age or two took these vast pine tracts underground where their resin globs hardened into a soft, warm, lustrous substance that looks and feels a lot like plastic.
More recently, within the last million years, Stone Age man discovered pieces of this fossilized sap washed up on the Baltic shores. Inviting to the eye and sensuous to the touch, it was only a matter of time before mythopoeic early man imbued these sea jewels with supernatural properties (it was said they came from the sun) and used them for both wear and worship. This fascination continued into and past the dawn of civilization as the golden stone took on great value and significance to, among others, the Assyrians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Phoenicians and Greeks.
Love of amber is as old as mankind. Archaeologists have positively dated amber artifacts as far back as 5000 B.C. No other gem except, perhaps, the pearl, can rival amber for sustained ornamental usage and popularity. The gem has never really gone out of vogue. Between 1895 and 1900, one million kilograms of Baltic amber were produced for jewelry. And well into the 1920s, amber was second only to diamonds in terms of U.S. gem imports.
There are plenty of reasons why amber has enjoyed 70 centuries of adoration.
To look at a piece of fine amber is to look at a miniature time capsule made and placed in the earth by nature herself. Incredibly, according to Patty C. Rice, author of “Amber: The Golden Gem of the Ages,” more than 1,000 species of extinct insects and crustacea have been found in amber. Studying leaves, twigs and botanical debris found encased in this gem has helped to identify many forerunners of our modern conifers, not to mention plants and flowers. Most importantly, it has helped paleontologists reconstruct life on earth in its primal phases.
But besides preserving the pre-human past, amber resonates with human history. No other gem is so intricately intertwined with the development of civilization and the procession of past societies. Baltic amber was a mainstay of trade and commerce in early Europe and the adjoining Mediterranean region at least as far back as 3200 B.C., by which time Egyptian dynasty and Stonehenge priests were already burying it in tombs, presumably to enable its owners to have good fortune in the afterlife.
Given such veneration, it comes as no surprise that the quest for amber motivated conquest for thousands of years. For instance, the Phoenicians, perhaps the best-known and most enterprising of ancient mariner peoples, opened new sea routes to northern Europe in an attempt to obtain amber direct from, or at least, closer to its source. (By then amber was known as “gold of the north.”) The Romans went one step further and sent armies to annex amber trading and producing areas. Indeed, wrote the great natural historian Pliny during the time of Nero (amber’s most ardent addict), “The price of a figurine in amber, however small, exceeded that of a living, healthy slave.”
The passion for amber wasn’t merely pagan. Clear, colorless amber was considered the most desirable material for rosary beads throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, the Amber rosary bead business was so big that certain orders of knights gained virtual monopolistic control of the gem.
By 1400 A.D. the possession and sale of raw, unfashioned amber was illegal in much of Europe.
“Brand X” Saps
The Baltic region is to amber what Burma is to ruby: its most prized source. Ironically, amber connoisseurs talk almost as admiringly of a reddish-brown Burma amber, the hardest (3 on the Mohs scale) and thus the oldest of all amber yet discovered (the longer amber is buried, the harder it gets). Obviously, hardness, usually 1.5 to 2.5 on the Mohs scale, is not one of amber’s strong points. But it more than compensates for its softness with a range of colors, numbering around 250, including very rare blue and green specimens from Sicily.
Aficionados divide amber into two main groups: clear and cloudy. The clear variety takes a high polish and is very much in demand, particularly in bead form in America. The cloudy type, most often likened to whipped honey in appearance, is preferred in Europe and North Africa and the Middle East.
Believe it or not, Baltic origin is a selling point for amber. Stones from this region contain succinic acid and are known as succinites while those without are known as retinites. To the unaided eye, it is impossible to tell succinite from retinite amber.
It is equally difficult to tell amber from its natural, much more recently created substitutes, the most common of which is copal, formed in African forests within the last 1,000 years. Copal not only resembles amber in appearance, it also contains leaves and insects. To differentiate copal, put a drop or two of ether on the stone in question. If it’s copal, it will turn sticky.
Nevertheless, don’t let ether decide whether the stone is amber. If the stone stays hard, it could just as well be a fake as amber. Plastic look-alike amber has long been a problem, especially since the late nineteenth century and the advent of synthesized plastic imitations such as celluloid, bakelite, and, more recently, bernit, polystrene and polybern. Thankfully, hot-point testing can help in detection of these fakes. Trickier to detect is pressed, or reconstructed, amber that consists of fused natural amber pieces- often with insects inserted. Even all-natural amber is commonly oiled to remove cloudiness, as well as to darken and harden it. It is only fitting that the longest-coveted gem should be paid the supreme flattery of rampant imitation.