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Amber: Golden Window on the Past

Touching amber is like touching time itself. In addition to being a beautiful gem, amber has become a scientific source material, truly a golden window on the past giving us a glimpse into a world that is millions of years old. Amber is the fossilized sap exuded from a species of extinct pine trees. It is thanks to amber that traces of life that flourished in primeval forests have been preserved until today. Entrapped in the resin may be found fragments of needles, leaves and twigs, flowers, seeds, and pollen as well as insects and, rarely, small animals. Recently, researchers working in Italy have found the oldest specimens of insects trapped in amber, a fly and two mites dating back 230 million years, which puts them in the late Triassic period. These three specimens are 100 million years older than any other amber-entombed creatures found to date. 

 

The earliest amber objects fashioned by humans come from the 13th millenium B.C.–primitive portraits of beasts and wild horses found in Meiendorf and regarded as amulets used to endow the hunter with magical powers and, perhaps, to even attract game. Amber’s original purposes to protect and decorate, extend even into present times where amber is avidly collected not only for scientific interest but for its incredible beauty and diversity as a gem. Amber comes in a wide range of colors from the white amber which the ancient Romans once burned as incense, to such descriptive names as egg yolk amber, butterscotch amber, cherry amber, as well as the rarer, green and black ambers, red fluorescent amber from the volcanic soil of Sicily - and even a blue amber from the Santo Domingo area although this is a bluish blush that appears on the surface of the stone. Amber also comes in transparent, translucent and opaque varieties or a combination. 

 

Amber is found in many places around the world but the most highly prized and that perhaps most coveted by connoisseurs is Baltic amber. To trace the history of amber’s travels along the Amber Route is to traverse the time line of human history. Amber was used extensively by the Celts as well as by ancient Romans. Perhaps the most famous amber expedition was organized in the time of Nero when so much amber was brought back from the Baltic coast that the background setting for gladiator fights was made exclusively from amber. Even the mesh used for restraining wild animals and covering the podium had a piece of amber tied into every knot. 

 

The Teutonic Knights of the 14th century maintained the princely privilege earlier reserved for rulers that any and all amber recovered should belong to the ruling class - and that included the Church for whom an amazing number of amber rosaries and religious artifacts were created. The fascinating history of amber could easily fill several volumes, but its presence as a very desirable gemstone cannot be ignored. From the earliest times, amber has been associated with magical powers which later translated into health benefit claims. Copernicus used amber as one of the ingredients of a medicinal cordial. Amber was thought to cure diseases of the ear and throat, eye diseases, headaches, and infertility. When worn every day, amber was thought to protect the wearer from ill fortune and disease and to ensure success. For a short time after World War I when the currency had been devalued amber was traded for necessities in some areas. Today’s amber connoisseurs seek out not only necklaces, bracelets, earrings and brooches of amber but antique artifacts such as boxes, sewing accessories, walking stick handles, pipe stems and cigarette holders, toiletry cases, religious items, and small sculptures all made of amber. While amber has always been highly coveted, it has also undergone surges of extreme popularity as with the publication of the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton during the 1990s. 

 

When the State Amber Factory was founded in Konigsberg in 1926 (later renamed Kaliningrad), its output gave collectors a dazzling array of amber products from which to choose, and Konigsberg was undoubtedly the mecca of amber craft during the first five decades of the twentieth century. After World War II, the amber industry changed considerably. The Amber Factory at Konigsberg became the property of the Soviet Union, but developments in design did not keep up with foreign demand and, sadly, the current Russian market has little regard for amber products which perhaps accounts for the general decline in amber craftsmanship. To see the poorly made trinkets that comprise the supply of most contemporary amber jewelry is like a knife in the chest for anyone who truly loves amber and knows its  potential for breathtaking beauty. This decline in craftsmanship has caused the price of antique amber jewelry and objects to rise and current prices reflect the desire of knowledgeable connoisseurs to seek out fine antique amber for their collections. 

 

Historical ambers, particularly those from before the 19th century, are genuine rarities and, when available, bring astronomical prices. The buyer of amber should always be wary since fakes are rampant, from natural resins which are not fossilized, to outright plastic fakes. Much so called “cherry amber” is actually Bakelite, but in recent years this has become nearly as pricey as true amber due to its age and the popularity of Bakelite jewelry. It is essential to know that if it is not fossilized, it is not amber. 

 

There are a number of tests that can be performed to determine if an article is true amber including the saline float test, inserting a hot needle to test the scent of pine, and applying acetone to amber, but if the test is not done properly the outcome will be meaningless and you might ruin beautiful amber in the process. Your best bet is to buy from a reputable dealer who guarantees the merchandise and offers a return policy. Among all the gemstones, amber is something very special–some would say magical. It is warm to the touch, when rubbed it creates a static electrical charge, and perhaps it is the first time machine linking us directly to the flora and fauna of a time when dinosaurs walked the earth.  

Copyrighted Cherie Fehrman 2017. All rights reserved