In my history box, which is full of interesting things from my grandparents mostly, I found this photo of my grandmother, taken about 100 years ago in Entebbe. That’s my Mum, aged about 3, in all her little bare foot glory. But the other thing that’s so important about this photo is the necklace my Grandmother is wearing which is a long string of amber, highly fashionable at that time, and amazingly the second photo which was taken on my workbench yesterday, is of this very necklace. I’ve been aware of this necklace and photo for my whole life, but I’ve never until now really thought about amber and what its story is.
We all know that amber is the resin from certain pine trees, but because it was first found washed up on beaches, this connection to trees wasn’t made for many thousands of years, in fact. Nicias (470-413 BC) declared that amber was created by the rays of the setting sun hitting the land with such strength that it left ” an unctuous sweat” that was then washed into the sea on the tide. The Greeks got a bit closer to the truth with their myth that when Phaeton, the son of Helios (the Sun) was killed, his sisters turned into pine trees and their tears turned into elektron (amber); but it was really the Roman naturalist Pliny who knew amber was tree resin because, he said, it smelled of pine trees when rubbed and it was combustible. Clever deduction.
The interesting thing for me in all this conjecture is that amber was found, first and foremost, on the beach, which really required some explaining. It seems that millions of years ago the pine trees that produced the resin would, during massively heavy rains, fall over, and along with all the resin they had produced that had fallen to the ground, they would be washed into the rivers and then into the sea where they were covered with sediment which then hardened. When mountains formed this rock was pushed up releasing the amber which would eventually wash up on the beaches. But there was still confusion over what it was, and what to call it, because what we know as ambergris (from sperm whales) was also found on the beaches, and both these strange deposits had a distinctive and not unpleasant smell, so for a long time the only distinction was to call one
‘yellow amber’ and the other ‘grey amber’ (ambergris). Eventually, as their origins and uses were more clearly decided, yellow amber became amber and ambergris kept its name. But interestingly, going back to the Greek myth in which the sisters’ tears were called elektron (beaming sun) this gave rise to the word electric because of amber’s ability to bear an electric charge, thus…
Amber is found almost the world over but by far the greatest deposits are mined inland in what was Prussia, and from its coastline on the Baltic sea. Even now 90% of the mined amber comes from the same region which will continue to produce amber for another 300 years if it’s mined at the same rate as it is today. What an enormous forest must have been there once. In fact there is so much amber and it was such an important part of Prussian culture that in 1712 King Frederick of Prussia had an entire banquet hall made with amber panels!
In North America amber is mined in open pits in Arkansas, and in Asia it is extracted from coal mines, and the amber that is once again being mined in Myanmar is of such high quality that mostly it goes to museums. Also snapped up by museums, for obvious reasons, are the pieces of amber that are found with inclusions in them like small insects, leaves and feathers – things that got caught in the amber when it was still liquid but from which they could not escape. I know the story in the Jurassic Park movies is fiction and no one has yet cloned a dinosaur from the DNA of a mosquito, but Jurassic and even older mosquitoes and ants have been found in amber and they play a vital role in piecing together what was happening on earth at that time. These pieces are sought after and are very precious, certainly, but by far the most precious amber is blue amber – who knew it even existed! It comes from the Dominican
Republic, mostly in the north. Some has been found in Mexico and some in Indonesia but the Dominican Republic blue amber is the real deal. And not only is it very rare, but it’s the only amber that is fluorescent.
In sunlight the amber is blue and in artificial light it’s browny/yellow like any other amber. It is the resin of a now extinct tree hymenaea protera or Algarrobo tree and is thought to have been formed 15-20 million years ago; the reason it’s blue is not certain but it’s supposed that it’s the result of incomplete combustion during forest fires. Amazing, and something to be sought out, I think!
Amber comes in all grades; ‘bastard’ or ‘bony’ amber is cloudy because it’s full of tiny air bubbles. This and ‘dirty’ amber which has inclusions of dirt and fragments of twigs and leaves, are mostly ground up and used either for incense – one of its most ancient uses – for smoking paraphernalia, and for varnish. The clear, quality amber is used in jewellery, but some of this clear amber may have been clarified by being heated in linseed oil which softens the amber enough to release the inclusions or air bubbles. Interestingly two pieces of amber can be joined by rubbing the surfaces with linseed oil, gently heating the amber and pressing them together. If I had two pieces with which to try, I would! I looked very carefully at the beads in my grandmother’s necklace and while some are quite clear and lovely, others are ‘bony’ amber; amazingly none of the the beads has dried out and cracked which is also quite common in old amber beads and other artifacts.
For a magpie though, amber can be a bit of a conundrum; magpies eat insects and magpies love jewels, so what to do when there’s an insect in a jewel?