What is Amber?

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What is Amber?

Amber is a form of fossilized tree resin which is used a gemstone since antiquity. In addition, it is used in the preparation of some perfumes and folk remedies - for example, if heated under the right conditions, "oil of amber" can be produced, and when oil of amber is combined with nitric acid, artificial musk can be produced.

Baltic Amber:
Baltic Amber

Because of its biological origins, amber often contains inclusions of fossilized plant or animal matter (most often insects, but occasionally larger animals such as lizards). Such inclusions are an important source of information about ancient ecological systems - providing scientists with information about their plant-life and animals, as well as preserving parts of these life-forms which would otherwise be unfossilizable. You might perhaps recall that the novels and movies in the Jurassic Park series are based on the idea of cloning dinosaurs using dinosaur blood from the stomachs of mosquitos fossilized in amber (in real-life however this is unlikely to be possible).

Fossilized insect in Amber:
Fossilized insect in Amber

There are three types of plant resin that potentially can fossilize into amber:
  1. Terpenoids which are produced by some species of conifers and angiosperms (flowering plants).

  2. Phenolic resins which are today only produced by some angiosperms.

  3. Medullosales, an extinct order of plants related to cycads, produced a third type of fossilizable resin.
In each case, different species of plant produces a different and characteristic resin. So, for scientific purposes we can classify ambers on this basis. However, gemologists tend to be more interested in physical characteristics of amber stones, so tend to classify them on other bases.

Amber Pendant

The name "amber" suggests the color amber, and it is true that yellow, orange, and brown are the most common colors of amber gem stones. However even among, the more common varieties of amber, colors can vary from almost white to pale yellow to brown to near-black. Amber is not however limited to such shades - there are also ambers of several other colors including blue amber (particularly sought after), green amber, and red amber ("cherry amber").

Blue Amber:
Blue Amber

Amber is found all over the world, most often in rocks dating from the Cretaceous Period or younger. The world's largest source of amber is near Kaliningrad in Russia - Amber is recovered from the Baltic Sea by fishing, dredging or diving, after it has been broken from the seafloor by Winter storms. In other places in the Baltic region, amber is mined, or brought to the surface by pumping water into underground deposits. In the Dominican Republic, the highly sought after blue amber is recovered by a traditional (but potentially dangerous) mining technique known as "bell pitting".
Recovering Amber in Poland:
Recovering Amber in Poland






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