One of the oldest gems from the standpoint of human use. Archeologists have found amber artifacts dating from 5000 BC, and amber was widely traded among early European cultures. Homer’s Odyssey mentions amber as a royal gift.
Some of the ancient Greeks believed that amber is crystallized sunshine.
Amber is nature’s time capsule. This fossilized tree resin contains remnants of life on earth millions of years ago.
The Greek name was elektron, from which the word electricity comes. Rubbing amber produces a static charge. This intrigued people for centuries, and when pioneer scientists began studying the phenomenon, they named it for the gem.
The modern name comes from Arabic anbar meaning ambergris, a waxy substance produced by whales and used in perfumes. The only factual connection between amber and ambergris is that both are sometimes found in the sea.
Color: Usually creamy white to yellow, brown, and orange. Tends to darken with age.
Clarity: Transparent to opaque. The material called cloudy amber is opaque due to the presence of tiny air bubbles.
Cut: Beads, cabochons, and carvings in many forms.
Size/Weight: All sizes are available. Occurs in pieces big enough for large carvings and other ornamental purposes. (Normally not priced or sold by carat weight.)
Often treated in one of several ways:
Gentle heating in oil can “clarify” cloudy amber by removing or masking air bubbles.
Heating transparent amber and then placing it in cold water produces small reflective fractures known as sun spangles.
Heat alone can darken and artificially “age” the color.
Permanence and Special Care: The effects of clarification and sun spangling are usually permanent, and those treatments create no added special care requirements for gem owners. The color of heat-treated amber may fade if the gem is exposed to intense light for a long time.
Classified as an organic gem. Others in the group include coral, pearl, and shell.
Composed mostly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxyen; general formula C10H16O, but always includes other ingredients (which also causes color).
The least dense – or most lightweight – of all gems. Some amber floats in saltwater.
Began with resin from pine trees that lived 10 million to 125 million years ago. Over the epochs since, the resin gradually hardened and changed into a form of natural plastic. More than 1,000 different kinds of insects, flowers, and seeds occur as amber inclusions. These were caught in the soft resin and encased when it hardened.
Amber needs gentle wear and care.
Hardness: Very low scratch resistance. Rates 2 to 2.5 on the Mohs Harness Scale.
Toughness: Low resistance to chipping and breaking.
Stability: Easily attacked by acids and many household chemicals, including solvents, cleansers, alcohol, and cosmetics. May develop hairline fractures as a result of moisture loss from age or exposure to hot or dry conditions.
Cleaning: Detergent and water only. To avoid scratching, use a soft-bristle brush. NEVER USE LIQUID CLEANER OR ULTRASONIC.