Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Glories of Amber - Part One: Origins

Amber is a lovely and highly desirable gemstone with a fascinating past.  Each piece has been witness to a metamorphosis from liquid plant matter to prized hardened natural plastic.  Then comes the creation of a chip, bead, or faceted stone, which is then included in a design with its own context and story.

Given the complex history of each nugget of amber, it is no surprise that trying to navigate through the use of amber and amber imitations in jewelry is equally complicated.  Especially since the amber "gemstone" isn't really a stone at all.

Amber begins as a liquid secretion from some trees.  It is not derived from the sap of the tree, but instead comes from the outer layers.  This is a natural hydrocarbon resin, and depending on the source, it can be used in creating lacquers, adhesives, and varnishes.  The use of this substance to the tree is not clear; it might be a way for the tree to rid itself of material it does not need.  Although in some cases it seems that this secretion may either repulse creatures that might eat the tree or attract beneficial insects. 

After secretion, the resin begins to harden, and becomes copal.  Copal can be as little as 1000 years old, and might even be collected right from the surface.  But true amber is an ancient material, tens of millions of years old.  In order to create amber naturally the resin must be buried, perhaps by sediment, and transformed by the high pressures and temperatures underground.  Eventually, enough of the volatile material is driven off that amber is finally formed.  Humans might then find it by searching areas cut into by water and erosion, or mining for it directly.

Depending on the part of the world the amber originates, it is probably 40-50 million years old.  The very oldest amber found *might* be as old as 130-140 million years.  Part of the appeal of this lovely "stone" is the knowledge that it comes from a close genetic relative - trees - and is the product of living processes.

Image Credit:  Insects in Baltic Amber, Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0
Sterling Post Earrings with Green Amber (Ambroid), Swarovski Crystal, and Malachite - Lunar Blue Designs

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Crystal in Handmade Jewlery - Part Four: The Shape of Things

Structure and composition aren't the only characteristics that help define the word "crystal" in common use.  For some people, the internal order and composition are not important, and what they mean when they say "crystal" is "has a regular geometric shape ending in a point."  In other words, the shape of the stone is the key factor.

This is a meaning often encountered in sites that deal with gemstones and their symbolic properties, such as healing.  This meaning might also be encountered on sites interested in selling materials for use in wicca, like wands for altars or pendulums for divination.  As noted in previous posts, this use of the word "crystal" is not incorrect - it is a reflection of history and culture.  There are many people who would be disappointed to purchase a "crystal" and find it isn't "crystal shaped."

Crystal points do make lovely jewelry, either drilled through as beads or wire wrapped as pendants.  The shape evokes a sense of mystery and magic.  Depending on the nature of the stone, they might range from delicate to sharp, and so might need to be treated with some care.  No two points are ever exactly the same unless they are mechanically cut or lab grown - gemstones all have natural variation.  Because of this pairing them for earrings or to use in sets takes some patience and design skill.

So to wrap up this four part series on crystal, the "point" again is know what you are using in your designs, and purchasing from your favorite sites.  One simple word like "crystal" does not mean the same thing to everyone, and so be sure to get specific details before you buy.  That way you can be certain you will love your jewelry when it arrives, and treasure it for years to come.

Image Credit: Quartz Crystal, Rob Lavinsky, CC 3.0,

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