WHAT IS AMBER?
Baltic amber is fossil resin produced by pine trees which grew in Northern Europe about 50 million years ago. The resin was washed out of the forest floor by large rivers and transported south towards the sea. In the course of time the resin was transformed to amber due to processes of polymerisation and oxidation.
FORMATION - 50 MILLION YEARS AGO
Scientists say that amber (or succinite) is a fossil pine resin that has achieved a stable state through oxidation, action of micro-organisms and other processes. If we want to image how everything happened, we should travel some tens of millions of years back to the southern regions of the present-day Scandinavia and nearby regions of the bed of the Baltic Sea (the formation of the Baltic Sea began only 13 thousand years ago) where conifer forests grew more than 55 million years ago.
The climate became warmer and conifer trees started to exude big amounts of resin. Any smallest wound caused excessive flow of resin. Of course, today there is no one type of pine which had similar characteristics to those of the fossil trees.
INCLUSIONS - ENTRAPPED BY TIME
Tree resins were very fluid and solidified very quickly through evaporation. A little fly or ant caught by the sticky resin remained trapped for centuries, this is how inclusions were formed.
Most common inclusions are insects (86,7%) and Arachnids (11,6%), while animals of other classes occur only in 1,7% and plants in 0,4% of cases.
Usually Baltic amber is yellow or bright yellowish. The colours of amber range from white, yellow, brown to red. There is greenish, bluish, gray and even black amber. Even more subtle shades and combinations are among them. Amber can be absolutely transparent or absolutely opaque. Amber is not always one-coloured: the unique combinations of two or more colours and shades, patterns (sometimes they form the most brilliant compositions of art) can be found. For these reasons amber becomes attractive, charming and unique.
Tree resins are the main amber material. They are transparent, bright yellow-the colour of fresh honey.
Transparent (with a yellowish shade). This colour of amber could be called "primary"- fresh tree resins are like this. About 10% of amber are transparent, but this is mostly found in small pieces. Big transparent amber pieces are especially rare and valuable. The shade of transparency could change from yellowish to dark red; it depends on the degree of amber oxidation. Inclusions are usually found in foliated transparent amber.
Red. natural red shade is especially rare (0.5%). Red shades can vary from orange to dark black. This colour of amber is mostly obtained artificially by heating transparent amber (oxidizing it).
Yellow. this is the most common colour of amber (about 70% of all colours). As a rule this amber is cloudy, not transparent, it occurs in various shades of yellow. This amber is an inherent part of national female costume.
White. White amber is very rare (about 1-2% of all amber). Usually this amber is distinguished by its variety of textures and "natural ornamentation". Amber of this colour is also called "Royal" or "Bony". It could be with some "colourful intrusions" (yellow, black, blue, green, transparent amber) with interesting patterns.
Blue. This is the rarest shade of amber and the most valuable (only 0.2% of all amber). Most Frequently this shade is found in white amber.
Green. Greenish amber is also rare (about 2% of all colours). Green transparent amber is very interesting, as it has "sugar structure".
Black. This is a frequent colour of amber (about 15%). It is attractive because of it is natural - the largest part of black amber consists of the remains of tree barks and vegetably matter.
FROM SOIL AND WATER
Until the 13th century seacoast inhabitants collected amber from the seashore and later they learned how to obtain amber by combing the seabed with nets. Most often they worked at night lighting the shore with a barrel of tar put on a hill or on a tree. Later bigger fishing nets and in shallow places - special hooks were used for this purpose. With the appearance of the diving suit amber was collected directly from the ground of the sea.
More serious excavations of amber began in 1854 when while deepening the fairway in the Curonian Bay near Juodkrantė big deposits of amber were found. Stantien and Becker, two Jewish businessmen from the Curonian Bay region, founded a company that soon became rich and in 1857 began mechanised excavation of amber - with the help of steam dredgers. It was here that the famous R.Klebbs' collection, which attracted the attention of world anthropologists, was found. People became interested and started to talk and write about this place and about this amber. The industry activity was in full swing. 30-50 tons of amber was excavated per year. After some time the owners of the company bought another amber producing mine in Palvininkai (now Yantarny, Kaliningrad Province) and built an amber-processing factory. It is not surprising that these two merchants became one of the richest industrialists in eastern Prussia, because the Palvininkai deposit contains 90% of the world's amber. Even now 500-700 tons of this mineral per year are excavated in an open mine using modern mining equipment. In Juodkrantė locals still find pieces of amber while digging out the potatoes in their fields that had been enriched with the slit from the bay.
There were many attempts to resume the mining of amber in the Curonian Bay, but the mining methods were primitive and the attempts were quite unsuccessful. For example Count Tiškevičius tried to excavate amber in swamps not far from Palanga. Even though only few hundreds of kilograms of amber were obtained, it was here that the "Palanga treasure" was gathered.
Fishermen of the Curonian Bay used to comb amber from the bottom of the sea with so called "keselė", a net dragged by two boats. The net had special hooks that scratched the seabed and lifted pieces of amber. Then amber got caught by the net. This method of production of amber was used only in Curonian Isthmus and was not known elsewhere.
At the end of the 19th century wealthy merchants abandoned the Curonian Bay deposit and its exploitation was resumed only recently. The amber-bearing layer with an area of 3000 hectares was reached while deepening the fairwater of the Klaipėda Seaport.
Even though many methods of amber production have been used throughout history, and those introduced in the last century were very perspective and efficient, collecting of amber pieces from the shore remains the most popular and lasting.
Even today amber hunters (about 30 persons) on the shore of the Baltic Sea near Karklė or Melnragė, if the cast of the net is successful, can catch 30-50 kg of amber.
Nobody can tell when exactly people started using amber in the manufacture of adornments and amulets and started conferring magic powers. It is known that it was processed using flint knifes, cutters, scraping tools, whetstones and sand. The oldest known amber article dates back to the end of the Stone Age. It is an amber plate found in a reindeer hunters' camp near Hamburg. European museums have many works of art made of amber.
In the Baltic lands in the New Stone Age and in the old Bronze Age raw amber was processed in three major centers - in Sambia Peninsula, Prussia; in the village of Šventoji, Lithuania; and in the villages around the Luban lake, Latvia.
In the early Middle Ages amber rosaries and small crosses were made. The use of amber for making of works of art became especially popular in the 17th - 18th centuries. By that time artisans learned how to cut and polish and shape amber on a lathe. The biggest part of famous works was manufactured in the Dancig workshop.
In the 9th-13th centuries, with the spread of handicrafts in Lithuania, artisans specialising in the processing of amber appeared. Palanga was one of the most important ancient amber-processing centers. Before World War I in Palanga normally 20,000 kg of raw amber were processed per year and 300-500 workers were employed in this industry. There were also many individual artisans and an amber factory in which about 80 workers manually made different adornments, cigarette holders, crosses, rosaries. Amber beads were exported to African and Asian countries and brooches and cuff links and other articles were exported to Scandinavia, Holland and France.
There was a time when artisans used amber only as a raw material. Even if forgetting all those flowers and bunches of grapes or ornaments that were glued together from hollowed and polished amber, 75% of a biggest natural piece of amber were wasted. Nobody thought of natural beauty of amber - it was pressed, melted and coloured with pigments. After World War II designer Feliksas Daukantas gave rise to a new trend in amber processing. He encouraged artists to show amber's natural beauty.
REAL OR NOT?
In the middle of the nineteenth century scientists discovered ways to synthesize natural precious substances and Baltic amber fell prey to falsification. Nowadays the falsification of amber (especially inclusions) is widespread. People who know only a few things about amber could be deceived. The falsifications could be sold as natural amber to them and sometimes for high price. In this article we will observe the most popular amber falsifications and the ways to distinguish them from real amber.
MATERIALS MOSTLY USED FOR AMBER IMITATIONS:
Copal is sold as Baltic amber, but in fact this is very young tree resins( 1000- 1million years old). Natural inclusions are possible in Copal, but usually they are falsified. Insects are inserted in them that are too big and too good-looking. Copal melts at rather a low temperature (lower than 150 C ), and tends to melts rather than burn. After heating it diffuses the "sweet" smell of burning resins.
It is easy to distinguish glass from amber: it is more solid; it cannot be scratched by metal. Glass is cold and fireproof.
Frequently, this material is found in artificial amber beads. These amber beads have especially exact shape (oval, faceted), the color is very similar to real amber (dark red, cloudy yellow, limpid). After heating it does not diffuse the smell of pine-tree resins, which is characteristic for Baltic amber.
Celluloid (cellulose nitrate) is usually yellow and cloudy. Optically it is difficult to distinguish it from amber. Celluloid is more solid and not so combustible. After heating it diffuses the smell of burnt plastic.
This is a plastic made from milk. The beads have cloudy, turbid yellow color. It is a little bit heavier than amber. After heating it diffuses the smell of burnt plastic.
Modern plastic (polyester, polystyrene) are used to produce artificial amber and inclusions. Optically this substitute can hardly be distinguished because with it authentic amber colors and limpidity can be obtained. Like in Copal, falsified inclusions are too big (more than 10 mm) and clearly seen, inserted in the very center of plastic. After heating it diffuses the smell of burnt plastic.
TESTS TO ASCERTAIN REAL AMBER
Smell tests are the most effective because natural amber has a specific smell, which is difficult to obtain when producing falsifications. After heating real Baltic amber diffuses the specific delicate fragrance of pine-tree resins. Falsifications using Copal diffuse the smell of "sweet" resins when heated and those using other materials diffuse the smell of burnt plastic.
(The best way is to rub into the palm of the hand) It is possible to heat real amber by rubbing until it releases the smell of pine- tree resins. This needs a very strong hand, as it is rather difficult to heat amber (especially when polished) to the necessary temperature, and it could be difficult to make an experiment with amber set in jewelry, as trying to rub it into other materials the amber could get scratched.
"Hot needle" tests- the most effective
To stick a heated needle into an imperceptible place in the amber (a hole of a drilled bead, etc.). If you smell definite pine-tree resins it means it is real amber. Deficiency: the slight mark of burning remains-this is incorrectable.
Amber is fragile - sticking with a hot needle you will notice some cracks, while a needle will pierce plastic without cracking it.
The specific gravity of amber (copal and polystyrene also) (1.04-1.1) is a little bit lower than the specific gravity of salt-water (1.15). Therefore, those materials will all float in the water, while others will sink.
Pour 7-8 full spoons of salt into 300ml of water and stir. After several minutes of stirring the salt will dissolve. Carry out the test and wash the sample with pure water. Deficiency: it will not detect polystyrene and copal; and jewelry (with metal, strings of beads and clasps make the piece sink).
To be finally convinced that floating material is amber, the "hot needle" test is indispensable.
IR-spectroscopy is the most effective scientific method for identifying fossil resins. Baltic amber could be characterized by IR-spectrum segment called "Baltic amber shoulder".
There are a lot of complicated methods how to ascertain natural amber, however, the safest way to purchase Real amber is by buying it in reliable shops. There you'll also be given a certificate which testifies that you have bought Real amber.
Baltic amber is conifer resin that lost the largest part of its volatile components during fossilization.
Different amber pieces are found from crumbs of 1-2mm to bars one meter long and about 10kg weight. Few big amber pieces are known - if a piece is bigger it is more rare. The biggest amber piece is 47cm long and 9.817kg weight. It is in the Berlin Natural Science Museum. The biggest piece of amber in our museum weighs 2.054 kg.
Amber distinguishes itself by its big variety of colours: scientists count about 250 various colours and shades. Pliny the Elder (23-79 years A.C.) wrote about the possibility to obtain any colour of amber by processing it in a special way. Now heating (amber gets red shade) and clarifying are the most popular ways of changing the colour.
Amber luminescence in yellow or greenish colour exposed by cathode and ultra-violet rays.
Amber rubbed into woolen fabric obtains negative charge and attracts small paper pieces.
Index of amber light refraction n=1.53-1.55. Like other minerals that refract light weakly amber can display its range of colours only when it is polished into convex surfaces; geometrical amber surfaces are usually not effective.
Amber hardness is measured according to the Moss scale at 2-2.5; sometimes it increases up to 3 (e.g. diamond - 10).
Its density is 890-1098 kg/m3.
Specific gravity of amber is low and fluctuates from 1.05 to 2 and it floats in salt water. Specific gravity of absolutely transparent amber is 1.1; specific gravity of white amber is 0.93-0.96 - it drifts in pure water.
Amber melting point is about 375C
In the air amber burns with a bright strong smoke flame diffusing a pleasant fragrance reminding pine-tree resins.
Amber never melts completely in any solvent: 20-25% of amber material melts in methyl alcohol; in ether 18-23%; about 23% in acetone; about 205 in chloroform; 21% in benzene, etc.
Organic amber structure is not monolithic. Like fresh tree resins it consists of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Frequently it contains 79% of C, 10.5% of O and 10.5% of H. According to O.Helm amber has from 3% to 8% of Amber Acid.
AMBER IN MEDICINE
Already famous Hippocrates (460-377 BC), father of medicine, in his works described medicinal properties and methods of application of amber that were later used by scientists until the Middle Ages.
In ancient Rome was used as medicine and as a protection against different diseases. Calistratus (?) famous physician of those times, wrote that amber protects from madness, powder of amber mixed with honey cures throat, ear and eye diseases and taken with water cures stomach illnesses.
Pliny the Younger noted that Roman peasant women wore amber medallions not only as adornments, but also as a remedy for "swollen glands and sore throat and palate."
Persian scientist Ibn Sina (Avicenna) called amber remedy for many diseases. There was a belief in eastern countries that amber smoke strengthens human spirit and gives courage. In China "amber syrup", a mixture of succinct acid and opium, was used as a tranquilizer and antispasmodic.
In the Middle Ages amber beads were even worn for the treatment of jaundice. It was believed that the magic force of this yellow stone could absorb unhealthy yellowness of the skin and the weakness of the organism. Terms Oleum succini (amber oil), Balsamum succini (amber balsam), Extractum succini (amber extract) were often used in the recipes and records of the alchemists of those times.
Prussian duke Albrecht decided to follow the recipe of a Roman physician and sent a piece of amber to Luther as a remedy for stone disease.
As could be seen from legends and myths Prussians and Samogitians also used amber in the manufacture of incenses. In former times Lithuanian tribes employed such incense to drive away evil spirits from the dead and help the soul travel to good spirits. The newly born babies were fumigated so that they could grow faster, the newly-weds - that they could live happily and those going to war so that they could return with spoils of victory.
Before World War I amber was still used for treatment of various diseases, e.g. tincture made of pieces of amber and vodka was thought to increase sexual potency of men. In Lithuania and in tsarist Russia nannies had to wear amber beads to protect themselves and babies from diseases. As late as before World War II, especially in Germany, amber beads were put on babies to make the eruption of teeth less painful and make the teeth grow stronger.
Even now in Lithuania many women suffering from goitre purchase curative amber beads made of unpolished pieces of amber to wear around the neck. At least nobody would be able contradict the fact that amber beads collect an electrostatic charge when touched and the oxidised surface contains the highest amount of succinic acid. It is a biostimulant that has a positive effect on the nervous system, the heart, and the kidneys and stimulates recovery processes.