Baltic Amber Jewelry


Russian Amber

The English word amber stems from the old Arabic word anbargris or ambergris and refers to an oily, perfumed substance secreted by the sperm whale. The linguistic root of Amber is the following: Middle-English: “ambre” Old French: “ambre” and Medieval Latin: “ambra” (or ambar). It came to be the name for fossil resin, which is also found on beaches, and which is lighter than stone, but not light enough to float.

“Pliny the Elder” noticed the presence of insects in amber; he wrote about this in his treatise Naturalis Historia in which he correctly theorized that, at some point, amber had been in a liquid state and covered the bodies of insects. He gave it the expressive name of “succinum” or gum-stone, a name that is still in use today to describe “succinic” acid as well as “succinite.”

Heating amber will soften it and eventually it will burn, which is why in Germanic languages the word for amber is a literal translation of burn-Stone (In German it is Bernstein, in Dutch it is Barnsteen etc.). Heated above 200°C, amber suffers decomposition, yielding an "oil of amber", and leaving a black residue which is known as "amber colophony", or "amber pitch"; when dissolved in oil of turpentine or in linseed oil this forms "amber varnish".

Amber from the Baltic Sea has been extensively traded since antiquity and in the main land, from where amber was traded 2000 years ago. The natives called it "glaes" (referring to its see-through similarity to glass). The Baltic Lithuanian term for amber is Gintaras and Latvian Dzintars. They and the Slavic jantar are thought to originate from Phoenician jainitar (sea-resin). However, while most Slavic languages, such as Russian and Czech, retain the old Slavic word, it has been replaced with bursztyn in the Polish language, deriving from the German analogue.

Amber in Geology
The oldest amber originates from the Upper Carboniferous Period approximately 345 million years ago! The oldest known amber containing insects comes from the Lower Cretaceous Period, approximately 146 million years ago. Commercially, the most important amber deposits are Baltic and Dominican amber. Baltic amber or succinite (historically documented as Prussian amber) is found as irregular nodules in a marine glauconitic sand, known as blue earth, occurring in the Lower Oligocene Strata of Samland in Prussia (Latin: Sambia), in historical sources also referred to as Glaesaria. After 1945 this territory around Konigsberg was turned into Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia, where it is now systematically mined. It appears, however, to have been partly derived from yet earlier Tertiary deposits (Eocene); and it occurs also as a derivative mineral in later formations, such as the drift. Relics of an abundant flora occur as inclusions trapped within the amber while the resin was still fresh, suggesting relations with the flora of Eastern Asia and the southern part of North America. Heinrich Göppert named the common amber-yielding pine of the Baltic forests Pinites succiniter, but as the wood, according to some authorities, does not seem to differ from that of the existing genus it has been also called Pinus succinifera. It is improbable, however, that the production of amber was limited to a single species; and indeed a large number of conifers belonging to different genera are represented in the amber-flora. Both Baltic and Dominican amber are rich sources of fossils and give much information about life in the ancient forests.

Amber Inclusions

The amber resin contains beautifully preserved plant-structures, remains of insects, spiders, annelids, frogs, crustaceans, marine microfossils and other small organisms, (which were trapped by the sticky surface and became enveloped while the exudation was fluid). In most cases, the organic structure has disappeared, leaving only a cavity, with perhaps a trace of chitin. Even hair and feathers have occasionally been represented among the enclosures. Fragments of wood frequently occur, with the tissues well-preserved by impregnation with the resin; while leaves, flowers and fruits are occasionally found in marvelous perfection. Sometimes the amber retains the form of drops and stalactites, just as it exuded from the ducts and receptacles of the injured trees. In addition to exuding onto the surface of the tree, amber resin also originally flowed into hollow cavities or cracks within trees, thereby leading to the development of large lumps of amber of irregular form.

The abnormal development of resin has been called succinosis. Impurities are quite often present, especially when the resin dropped on to the ground, so that the material may be useless except for varnish-making, whence the impure amber is called firniss. Enclosures of pyrites may give a bluish color to amber. Bony amber owes its cloudy opacity to minute bubbles in the interior of the resin.

Not all amber is translucent. Amber becomes transparent when the surfaces are polished, thus revealing inclusions. Nearly 360 fossil invertebrates have been discovered from opaque amber found at Charentes, France: primitive wasps, flies, ants and spiders, particularly those measuring just a few millimeters. Three-dimensional images of the trapped organisms are built up through microtomography, showing detail on the scales of micrometres. An enlarged plastic three-dimensional model can be obtained of an organism that has remained embedded in the amber, suggesting alternative means of cataloguing new species trapped in amber.

Where to Find Amber
Baltic amber has a very wide distribution, extending over a large part of northern Europe and occurring as far east as the Urals. Baltic amber yields on dry distillation succinic acid, the proportion varying from about 3% to 8%, and being greatest in the pale opaque or bony varieties. The aromatic and irritating fumes emitted by burning amber are mainly due to this acid. Baltic amber is distinguished by its yield of succinic acid, hence the name succinite proposed by Professor James Dwight Dana, and now commonly used in scientific writings as a specific term for the Prussian amber. Succinite has hardness between 2 and 3, which is greater than that of many other fossil resins. Its specific gravity varies from 1.05 to 1.10. An effective tool for Baltic amber analysis is IR spectroscopy. It enables the distinction between Baltic and non-Baltic amber varieties because of specific carbonyl absorption and it can also detect the relative age of an amber sample.

Although amber is found along the shores of a large part of the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. For many centuries, the great amber-producing area was the promontory of Sambia or Samland, (the coast around Königsberg in Prussia). This has been part of Russia since 1945. About 90% of the world's extractable amber is still located in the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia on the Baltic Sea. Pieces of amber torn from the seafloor are cast up by the waves. Sometimes the searchers wade into the sea, furnished with nets at the end of long poles, which they drag in the seaweed containing entangled masses of amber; or they dredge from boats in shallow water and rake up amber from between the boulders. Divers have been employed to collect amber from the deeper waters. Now extensive mining operations are conducted in quest of amber. The nodules from the blue earth have to be freed from matrix and divested of their opaque crust, which can be done in revolving barrels containing sand and water. The sea-worn amber has lost its crust, but has often acquired a dull rough surface by rolling in sand.

Since the establishment of the Amber Road, amber known as "Prussian gold" (which is now also referred to as "Lithuanian gold") has substantially contributed economically and culturally. Amber jewelry and amber ware are offered to foreign tourists in most souvenir shops as distinctive to Lithuania and its cultural heritage. The seaside town of Palanga has the Palanga Amber Museum dedicated to amber. Amber can also be found in Latvia as well as Denmark, northern Germany, Poland, and Russia.

Amber Art and Ornaments
Amber was very much valued as an ornamental material in very early times. It has been found in Mycenaean tombs; it is known from lake-dwellings in Switzerland, and it occurs with Neolithic remains in Denmark, whilst in England it is found with interments of the Bronze Age. The so-called Hove amber cup, a cup turned in amber from a bronze-age barrow at Hove is now in the Brighton Museum.

Beads of amber are found with Anglo-Saxon relics in the south of England. Amber was valued as an amulet and it is still believed to possess medicinal properties. Amber is used for beads and ornaments, and for cigar-holders and the mouth-pieces of smoking pipes. It is regarded by the Turks as especially valuable, inasmuch as it is said to be incapable of transmitting infection as the pipe passes from one mouth to another. The variety most valued in the East is the pale straw-colored, slightly cloudy amber. Some of the best pieces are sent to Vienna for the manufacture of smoking appliances.

The Amber Room was a collection of chamber wall panels commissioned in 1701 for the King of Prussia, and then given to Tsar Peter the Great. The room was hidden in place from invading Nazi forces in 1941, who upon finding it in the Catherine Palace, disassembled it and moved it to Königsberg. What happened to the room beyond this point is unclear, but it may have been destroyed when the Russians burned the German fortification where it was stored. The Amber room was re-created in 2003. The Amber Room was reconstructed from the Kaliningrad amber.

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