Amber - Jewel of the Ages

By Marv Baskin
As published in The Desert Advocate

Amber jewelry has surged in popularity in recent years, but our high regard for this most precious non-stone is nothing new – the wearing of amber goes back at least as far as the 10th century B.C., in Assyria. The Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, and Phoenicians (hey, that’s us!) also sought out this most precious of resins.

So what is amber? It is the oldest substance known. Although popular in jewelry and other items for many millennia, it is not a stone but, simply, fossilized tree resin, or sap. To be called amber, the resin must be several million years old and although it’s often known as “arboreal gold,” amber can actually be colored in yellow, red, green, or blue.

The transparency of amber depends on its internal structure; any kind of cloudiness (turbidity) is caused by air bubbles, the size and position of which effect the color. Opaque yellow or white amber has a foamy structure; the more air bubbles, the whiter the color. In addition to the widely known brown (cognac) amber, there are green, bluish and black (Jet) varieties, all caused by tiny networks of cracks. Green Baltic amber is stunning in its richness and is our most popular variety.

Other than amber’s spectacular range of color, what is so fascinating are the once-living “inclusions” it preserves. Each piece of amber is unique with inclusions of leaves, flowers, insects, spiders or lizards. They still look life-like millions of years after their death, sealed in their transparent tomb. One especially rich bed of amber in New Jersey has yielded over 100 previously unknown (and extinct) Cretaceous species dating back 94 million years … the oldest amber dates from 230 million years ago!

Today an ace-high specimen with a 30 million year-old lizard trapped inside might go for $25,000. The most prized source of the world’s amber is the Baltic coast of Germany, although it’s also found off the coasts of Sicily and England, as well as Myanmar, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the state of New Jersey.

Ancient Romans, and their love of luxury, made amber famous; they called it the “Gold of the North”. Traces of amber workshops from the third and fourth centuries A.D. have been found in Poland and now the ancient amber trade routes are being accurately reconstructed by Polish and Italian archeologists.

Initially only for royalty and nobles, amber handicraft reached its peak in the 16th and 17th century workshops in Gdansk, Elblag and Konigsberg. Necklaces, mugs, statuettes, tables silver set in amber, boxes, candlesticks, altars and cabinets can still be admired.

Finally, the big question: Could dinosaurs be cloned from DNA preserved in amber, as in the Jurassic Park movies? Unfortunately, scientists agree that this would be impossible. But with amber, if we can’t bring life back to our time, at least we can still see it, encased in a gorgeous piece of jewelry.


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