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

1 comment:

  1. Great post! As always, I learned a lot about a stone (or non-stone) just from your one, informative entry.

    Given the extremely lengthy natural process that creates amber, is there any danger of it being over-collected? Is it becoming more rare, or is there simply a great deal of it?


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