Guide to Amber
What is Amber?
Amber is fossilised tree resin. It is not a gemstone as such, but it is often used as a gemstone in jewellery or made into ornaments such as paperweights. The chemical name for amber is succinite from the Latin name succinum. However, the chemical composition of amber varies from sample to sample and is not consistent.
What are inclusions?
Inclusions are bits of flora or fauna set inside the amber and preserved for millions of years. They are fascinating as it gives us the chance to look back in time. Frequently found inclusions are flies - often from the famile Sciaroidea or fungus gnats. Fungus gnats were flies that fed on the rotting forest vegetation.
Other rarer inclusions that can be found include cockroaches, lizards, animal hair, and very occasionally a frog, a mouse or teeth! However, inclusions in amber can be faked as was the case in New Zealand in the 19th century when the locals used Kaori Gum (from the local Kaori trees, which are indigenous to New Zealand) to fake their own amber, then added suitable inclusions.
The adjacent photo shows a piece of amber with inclusions on display at the V and K Mizgiris Museum in Lithuania.
Where is amber found?
The main sources of amber in the world are the shores of the Baltic Sea and the Dominican Republic, although it has also been found in other areas - amber has been found washed up on the beaches of Great Yarmouth and Scarborough. Whilst the source of amber in the Baltic region is the pine tree (currently believed to be from the tree of genus Pseudolarix), amber from the Dominican Republic originates from the George Poina tree. Amber from this tree can be found in a variety of colours, including blue, red, green, yellow and orange, whereas Baltic Pine amber ranges from pale yellow to brown with all shades inbetween.
How is amber collected?
It can either be collected from deposits washed up on beaches or commercially mined.
Roughly speaking, how old is amber?
It is between 20 and 360 million years old (how fascinating are those inclusions that look like they were set there just yesterday!).
What should I look for in a piece of amber jewellery?
With amber, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, there are no hard and fast rules. For example, some people prefer amber that is completely transparent with no inclusions whatsoever. However, others prefer the history encapsulated in a piece with inclusions. It really comes down to personal preference.