"Pretty in amber to observe the forms of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms! The things, we know, are neither rich or rare, But wonder how the devil they got there."
-- Alexander Pope, Poet (1688-1744)
Although amber is characteristically a golden orange hue, other colors of amber are also found. These rarer colors are violet, orange, yellow, green, blue and even black. Carvings in these hues are much sought after by collectors, blues and greens being the most valuable.
Amber may be transparent or translucent and has a greasy shine. Air spaces inside the amber give it a cloudy appearance; heating the amber in oil fills the spaces and makes it transparent.
Amber is the fossilized resin of trees. Insects, pieces of moss, lichens and pine needles may be found in amber, having been trapped millions of years ago while the resin was still sticky. Despite its origins, however, amber has just the same attributes of beauty, rarity and durability as mineral gems.
Over the centuries, philosophers and alchemists conjured up delightful but fanciful theories to explain the origins of amber. In ancient Rome, Demonstratus, a first-century AD Roman senator and historian, records in his manuscripts a popular belief that amber was formed from the urine of the lynx: tawny, dark sherry colors being the product of the male, and lighter colored ambers produced by the female lynx.
Another ancient belief holds that the rays of a brilliantly setting sun became congealed in an evening sea and were cast upon the shore in the form of amber.
However, in about 240 BC, Sudines, an astrologer who lived at the court of Attalus I of Pergamum, wrote a treatise on the mystical properties of gemstones. He wrote that amber is the product of a tree that grows in Liguria, a tree known as the "lynx".
Amber becomes charged with electricity when it is rubbed briskly with a cloth, and attracts to itself small pieces of tissue papers and straw. This was well known to Thales of miletus, a Greek scientist of the sixth century BC, and it was this that gave rise to its Greek name, electron, from which is derived the modern world "electricity."
Gemologists divided amber into four groups:
1. Succinite (Baltic amber)
2. Burmite (Burmese amber)
3. Simetite (Sicilian amber)
4. Rumanite (Rumanian amber)
The last three are considered to be the rarer forms.
The most abundant and prolific is Baltic amber, of which much is gathered along the shores of the Baltic Sea, Great storms battering the amber from the ocean floor finally throw it, together with flotsam, on to the beaches and among the rocks. Open-pit mining gives the greatest yield; here, giant steam shovels cut immense swathes from the "blue earth" in which landlocked amber is found.
Burmese amber is found in an area near to the Jadeite mines in the Hukong Valley. It is recovered only by mining. The principal color of shards of this material varies from red to brown. In appearance, Burmite has a somewhat fluorescent look.
Sicilian amber is recovered from an area around the mouth of the Simeto River in Sicily. It generally displays the darker hues of red. Rumanian amber shows deeper colors of dark red, which may even be almost black in color. This material often shows fluorescence.
In addition, amber is also found along the Samland Coast near Kalinigrad, Russia, as well as in the Dominican republic, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Canada and the USA.
Fossil amber originated as the life-giving saps of extinct coniferous trees, such as Pinus Succinifera, which flourished in the Eocene and Oligocene periods, just before the Ice Age, about 55 million years ago. It is found among sedimentary rocks.
In describing his wife's hair color, Nero compared it to amber, from that time on, Pliny reports that respectable women "began to aspire to this color."
For centuries, amber has been used medicinally in many ways, either as a cure or as a preventative measure. Pliny writes:
"Amber indeed is supposed to be a prophylactic against tonsillitis and other infections of the pharynx."
Listed by Dioscorides (AD 40-90) in his Materia Medica, together with some 200 other minerals and stones, amber is recommended as a useful healing agent by itself or an ingredient in medication.
Callistratus advised that: "People subject to attacks of wild distraction" were usually cured when powdered amber was taken in a little wine. Immense confidence in the curative properties of amber was shown by the Romans - especially in the treatment of such ailments as fever, croup, asthma, hay fever and infections of the throat. To this end it was worn as a necklace or pendant.
For those who suffered painful ear problems, a medication of finely powdered amber, mixed with honey and rose oil, was put into the infected ear. Many Roman physicians, believing poor sight would be improved, recommended a mixture of amber powder and Attic honey to be taken internally. Only reddish ambers, however, were considered effective for medicinal purposes.
To quote Camillus Leonardus, physician to Cesare Borgia:
"Succinum or Amber being taken inwardly, it provokes urine, brings down the menses and facilitates a birth. It fastens teeth that are loosened..."
As the centuries passed, physicians retained their faith in amber. The seventeenth-century work, A Lapidary or History of Pretious Stones, 1652, states:
"The white odoriferous Amber is the best for physic use, and thought to be of great power and force against many diseases, as against vertigo and asthmaticall paroxysmes, against catarrhes and arthreticall pains, against diseases of the stomach... and against diseases of the heart, against plagues, venoms and contagions. The Florentine Physicians are wont to prescribe some few drops of its oyl to be taken in wine for the former purpose. Is is used either in powder or in oyl..."
Another writer spoke of the power of amber "Lammer beads":
"Lammer beads...are almost always made of Amber, and are considered as a charm to keep away evil of every kind; their touch is believed to cure many diseases, and they are still worn by many old people in Scotland round the neck."
Prepared salts of amber were made by the medicine shops into all kinds of lotions, potions and electuaries. The virtue of such an amber preparation was said to be that it:
"heals, dryes, dissolves; strengthens heart and brain and revives the Animal and Vital Spirits by its sweet sulphur; and is used in perfumes to burn against bad air, and keep the Spirits from infection."
Time has not diminished our belief in amber as a healer; it has retained its place as a medication in the armories of both physician and pharmacist, in most countries. For example, a pungent oil distilled from amber is known as Oil of Succinate or Oil of Amber. This oily distillate has properties rather like turpentine and is used extensively in the preparation of liniments.