Uses: Ornamental stone, gemstone and semi-precious stone.
The Physical Properties of Amber.
Amber, or fossil tree sap, was made famous in the movie "Jurassic Park".
Amber is a beautiful stone that is cut and polished and used as a valuable
gemstone. It is also a fossil and can contain many preserved insects and
other animals and plants that are tens of millions of years old. The odd
inclusions that are often seen in amber usually add to amber's unique look
and in many cases greatly increase its value.
The fossils that are encased in amber probably got there when they flew or
crawled on to the fresh seeping sap and then got stuck. The sap oozed over
the trapped animals and perhaps fell to the ground and was later covered
by dirt and debris. The sap later hardened and became a fossil.
The fossils are mostly insects such as gnats, flies, wasps, bees and ants.
Occasionally more exotic insects are trapped in the amber such as
grasshoppers, preying mantises, beetles, moths, termites, butterflies,
etc. Other non-insect animals are found in amber too such as spiders,
centipedes, scorpions and even frogs and lizards. No really large animals
like mammals or birds are seen in amber but feathers and fur have been
seen. Invaluable plant remains have also been found in amber including
flowers, mushroom caps, seeds, leaves, stems, pine needles and pine cones.
The rarity of the trapped fossils controls the value of the amber more so
than the quality of the amber. Remember these are fossils and are not the
same species that are alive today. Amber has greatly increased the
knowledge of the evolution of insects and plants as well as enlivening the
interest in paleontology in general.
Amber is often imitated by plastics, colored glasses and some modern tree
resins. However, its hardness is usually greater and it is tougher than
other resins. Its low specific gravity (amber can float on salt water) and
inclusions can distinguish it from plastics and glasses.
Crystal System does not apply because amber is amorphous (meaning it
does not have an ordered structure).
Habits include nodules embedded in shales or sandstones and those
that are washed up on beaches.
Fracture is conchoidal.
Hardness is 2+.
Specific Gravity is approximately 1.1 (extremely light and can float
in salty water).
Streak is white.
Other Characteristics: Can be burned, fluorescent under UV light and
is much tougher (will not crumble as easily) than modern tree resins.
Notable Occurrences include all Baltic countries; Venezuela; Russia;
Romania; Burma; in coal seams in Wyoming, USA and the Dominican
Best Field Indicators are color, density, toughness, softness and
Amber is the fossilized resin from ancient forests. Amber is not produced
from tree sap, but rather from plant resin. This aromatic resin can drip
from and ooze down trees, as well as fill internal fissures, trapping
debris such as seeds, leaves, feathers and insects. The resin becomes
buried and fossilized through a natural polymerization of the original
Amber is a fossilized resin, not tree sap. Sap is the fluid that
circulates through a plant's vascular system, while resin is the
semi-solid amorphous organic substance secreted in pockets and canals
through epithelial cells of the plant. Land plant resins are complex
mixtures of mono-, sesqui-, di-, and triterpenoids, which have structures
based on linked isoprene C5H8 units (Langenheim, 1969, p. 1157). Volatile
terpenoid fractions in resins evaporate and dissipate under natural forest
conditions, leaving nonvolatile terpenoid fractions to become fossilized
if they are stable enough to withstand degradation and depositional
conditions. The fossil resin becomes incorporated into sediments and
soils, which over millions of years change into rock such as shale and
Therefore, amber is formed as a result of the fossilization of resin that
that takes millions of years and involves a progressive oxidation and
polymerization of the original organic compounds, oxygenated hydrocarbons.
Although a specific time interval has not been established for this
process, the majority of amber is found within Cretaceous and Tertiary
sedimentary rocks(approximately 30-90 million years old)
Although there are contrasting views as to why resin is produced, it is a
plant's protection mechanism. The resin may be produced to protect the
tree from disease and injury inflicted by insects and fungi. Resin may be
exuded to heal a wound such as a broken branch, and resins possess odors
or tastes that both attract and repel insects (Langenheim, 1969, p. 1167).
In mature trees, resin may simply exude from vertical fissures in the bark
due to tension produced by rapid growth (Langenheim, 1969, p. 1166). Resin
may also be produced as a plant's method for disposing of excess acetate.
There is no one tree responsible for the resin that fossilizes into amber.
Botanical affinities have been suggested based on examination of the
entombed debris and through chemical studies of the resin. The botanical
affinity of jelinite, Kansas amber, appears to be from the Araucariaceae
family, which is considered to be a primary Mesozoic amber tree. Although
this tree does not exist today in the northern hemisphere, it would
closely resemble Agathis australis, or the huge Kauri pine found today in
During most of the Mesozoic geologic time period, gymnosperms dominated
land vegetation. Conifers are the most successful gymnosperm living today
(Cleal & Thomas, 1999, p. 62). Some of the amber land plants were
probably conifers from the order Pinales, in the families: Araucariaceae
(e.g., Norfolk Pine, Monkey Puzzle, Kauri Pine), Taxodiaceae (e.g.,
sequoias and bald cypresses), Taxaceae (e.g., yews), Pinaceae (e.g., pine
and larches), Cupressaceae (e.g., cedars, cypresses, junipers), and
Studies by Göppert (1836), based on botanical debris entombed in amber,
concluded that members of the Pinaceae were the source of Baltic amber.
Specifically, Göppert (1836) designated the amber tree as Pinites
succinifer, although he clearly stated this wood anatomy was not the same
as any living pine today. Disregarding botanical evidence and
concentrating on chemical evidence, Beck (1999) and Larsson (1978)
suggested sources other than Pinaceae for Baltic amber, including
Araucariaceae, Cupressaceae, and Taxodiaceae; they believed that
chemically Göppert's Pinites was a closer match to the Araucariaceae than
One depositional environment for amber is marginal marine. Amber's
specific gravity is slightly over 1 and it floats in saltwater; therefore
amber becomes concentrated in estuarine or marine deposits, moved some
distance from the original site (Langenheim, 1969, p. 1159). Trees and
resin may be transported and deposited in quiet water sediments that
formed the bottom of a lagoon or delta at the margin of a sea. Wood and
resin are buried under the sediment and while the resin becomes amber, the
wood becomes lignite. Wet sediments of clay and sand preserve the resin
well because they are devoid of oxygen.
Therefore, given copious resin producing trees and appropriate burial
conditions, amber is preserved in sedimentary clay, shale, and sandstones
associated with layers of lignite, a woody brown coal. A generalized
interpretation of the depositional conditions present in Kansas
amber-bearing strata is that a transgressing or advancing Cretaceous sea
in north-central Kansas led to deposition and preservation of fluvial,
estuarine, and lagoon or bay deposits behind a barrier island system
Types of Amber
One method of classifying amber is by color and degree of transparency.
This criteria correlates to an optical classification of amber varieties.
Colors of amber include yellow, orange, red, white, brown, green, bluish,
and "black" (dark shades of other colors). The degree of transparency
varies in amber from clear to cloudy. Clear amber is transparent and
usually ranges from pale yellow to dark reddish yellow. Cloudy amber can
be semi-transparent to opaque, a variety of colors and separated into
terms such as fatty, bone (or osseous) or foamy (or frothy). Fatty amber
does not necessarily imply a green color. Fatty amber has tiny bubbles,
suspended dust particles, and is usually a translucent, yellowish color
resembling goose fat or also compared with the look of whipped honey.
Green amber has tiny bubble inclusions and suspended particles, but it
does not have the yellowish appearance of fat. The green color probably
results from decaying organic matter in a marsh environment. Bone or
osseous amber is whitish yellow or brown in color, opaque and looks
similar to ivory or bone. Black decayed organic debris is commonly found
in this type of amber. Foamy or frothy amber is very soft and therefore
incapable of taking a polish. It is opaque and usually contains pyrite
Natural lumps of amber formed from resin extruded inside and outside the
tree trunk. These forms create external drippings and swellings, as well
as internal resin which gathers in fissures inside the tree trunk.
1. Internal crack fillings
2. Forms under the bark
3. Resin pocket in the wood
4. Forms between the bark
5. Fillings from tree wounds
6. External stalactite shapes
8. External drops and swellings
This was taken from Lausitzer Bernstein (1995) by B. Kosmowska-Ceranowicz,
Other descriptive names for amber exist, reflecting not only color and
degree of transparency but also chemical composition, the degree of
weathering, places of discovery, workability, and functions in folk
rituals. In Poland, some 200 folk names are applied to amber and some 80
variety names. "Soily" amber is described as brown or green, and full of
gas bubbles and debris due to the decaying organic matter.
Another mode of classifying amber, a physical classification, is based on
procurement, land or sea. Sea stone and scoopstone refers to amber found
in or near the sea. Scoopstone is the amber gathered from seaweed. Sea
stone or sea amber is collected as it is washed onto the beach or directly
from the water (amber floats in salt water). Some amber procured on land
is termed pit amber. Pit amber is mined from rock strata called "blue
earth" and the source of most Baltic amber. This amber is covered with a
crust, which obscures the quality of the piece. Sea amber is usually
superior to mined amber because the waves provide polish, a uniform
quality and there is no crust on the surface. Amber can also be found on
land in secondary or alluvial deposits. Alluvial deposits indicate the
material has been transported away from the primary source by erosional
agents such as wind, water or glaciers.
Another physical classification system is the natural form in which amber
is found. There are both external and internal tree trunk amber forms.
External amber forms are the result of resin extruded by the trunk. This
creates various shapes and sizes that can preserve trunk imprints as well
as debris. Internal amber forms are the result of resin infilling fissures
and extended wounds within the tree trunk. These casts (filling in a mold)
can be large lumps or tiny, flat plates with imprints on both the convex
and concave surfaces. The lumps can originate during the healing of
wounds, such as broken branches, and the flat plates could be filling
cracks or resin pockets between annual growth rings. One external dripping
form can be termed a stalactite, elongate and conical, with a somewhat
concentric structure resulting from multiple outpourings of resin.
Internal crack filling forms can also be elongate, but the structure shows
the axis is parallel to the direction of flow, not concentric.
Finally, amber can be classified based on chemical composition , usually
as one of two fossil resins: succinite or retinite. Baltic amber or
succinite was once thought to be the only "true" amber and is the most
suitable for jewelry. Other fossil resins include gedanite, krantzite,
beckerite, stantienite, glessite, schraufite and delatynite. These fossil
resins are mostly devoid of inclusions and contain small amounts, if any,
succinic acid. Gedanite is found with Baltic amber and thought to be resin
from an extinct white pine species. It was first found near Gdansk, which
is now in Poland but then called Gedania. Krantzite and gedanite are both
rare varieties of Baltic amber, that is they contain some succinic acid,
but both have lower hardness and other differing properties from Baltic
amber or succinite. Beckerite is also found with Baltic amber, though
nicknamed "brown resin". Stantienite resembles beckerite in color but due
to complete opacity it is termed "black resin". These two types of amber
are named for Becker and Stantien, two developers of amber dredging and
mining operations in the Samland region in the 1800s.
Geologic Occurrence of Amber
The composition, color, and other physical properties of amber all vary
according to age, conditions of burial, and type of tree that produced the
resin. Amber has been found in sediments from the Carboniferous to
Quaternary age, but the greatest concentration is in Cretaceous and
Tertiary sediments. Below is a geologic time frame relating to amber
formation, based on Jean Langenheim's work with amber/botanical affinities
reproduced in Rice: Amber the Golden Gem of the Ages, the Polish Academy
of Sciences: Amber in Nature, a German publication: Lausitzer Bernstein,
and Grimaldi: Amber Window to the Past. Mark
Meyer has created a timeline
for the presence of amber within the geologic time scale that is worth
Carboniferous/360-285 million years ago (mya): United Kingdom;
Permian/285-245 mya: CIS=Russia.
Triassic/245-215 mya: Austria.
Jurassic/215-145 mya: Denmark=Bornholm.
Cretaceous/145-65 mya: U.S.A.=Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey,
New York, Delaware, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, South Dakota,
Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Alaska, and California;
Canada= Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia; Mexico; Brazil; Poland;
Denmark=Bornholm, Greenland; Austria; Switzerland; Hungary; Spain;
France; United Kingdom; Isreal; Lebanon; CIS=Russia (Siberia); Myanmar
(formerly Burma); Japan; Borneo.
Quaternary/2 mya-recent: Isreal; Africa=Angola, Tanzania, Sierra
Leone, Congo; Madagascar; India; New Zealand; Philippine Islands;
U.S.A.=Alaska; Sweden; Germany; Poland.
It is difficult to determine if the amber in sediments is primary or
secondary. Primary deposits are insitu. Secondary deposits are where amber
is found after transportation by rivers, transgressing seas, glaciers or
fluvioglacial waters. Up until 1860 amber procuring methods were off the
beaches and with shallow diving. It was obvious that sea amber came from
strata beneath the sea and a larger supply could be obtained by dredging
or mining. Most Baltic amber is being produced in the Samland promontory,
an area today controlled by Russia, where the strata containing amber is
approximately 25-40 meters beneath the soil. A typical, geologic
cross-section representing undisturbed, amber-bearing strata along the
Baltic coast would include: less than a meter of alluvium; four meters of
Pleistocene sand and marl (1-2 mya?); seventeen meters of Tertiary sands
and lignite (2-5 mya?); one-three meters of Tertiary coal (2-5 mya?);
seventeen-twenty meters of glauconite (5-25 mya?); and finally the
Tertiary layer with amber, five to six meters of "blue earth" stratum
(25-40 mya?). Below this "blue earth", a gray-green clay is Cretaceous age
rock, which in this location is devoid of amber.
Controversy exists regarding the geologic age of some resins, and whether
or not all fossil resin may be considered amber. If hardened resin is
collected in Tertiary, Quaternary, or Recent primary deposits, not
secondary reworked alluvial deposits, that are less than 25-35 million
years old, there is a good chance that this fossil resin, or the so-called
amber, is in fact copal. Resins that have been dated to be a few hundred
to a few million years old are copal not amber.
Physical Properties of
A mineral is a naturally occurring homogeneous solid with a definite
chemical composition and ordered crystalline structure. It is usually of
an inorganic origin. Amber is not a mineral, because it has an organic
origin and amorphous structure (no orderly internal arrangement of atoms).
Find out more about amber's physical properties below. Information is
available on a young resinous material, that is often times confused with
amber, called copal. Copal resembles amber but is not a mineral either.
Composition: can vary greatly depending on the botanical source, though
all have terpenes or compounds that are linked as the resin matures. It is
thought that Baltic amber, or succinite, contains 3-8% succinic acid
(succus is Latin for juice); succinic acid is believed to form from
microorganism-induced fermentation of the cellulose contained in the
resin. One composition of an amber variety is: oxygenated hydrocarbon
(carbon 67-87%, hydrogen 8.5-11%, oxygen 15%, sulfur 0-0.46%). Although
this composition was believed to be the hardened tree resin from the genus
Pinus, chemical studies show these pines were not the source of Baltic
Dr. Curt W. Beck (1998) summarized the literature on the chemistry of
amber at the World Amber Congress. He related Pliny's belief that amber
was a liquid seeping from pine, hardened by frost, heat, and the sea. In
the 16th century, Agricola also believed amber to be the juice of a pine
tree and used the term succinum. Although botanists have described the
Baltic amber tree as Pinites succinifer or from the genus Pinus, based on
cones and needles found entombed amber, the chemists have isolated
compounds in succinite that occur in other sources than ordinary pines. In
the 19th century Germans, Swedes, and Swiss chemists recognized succinic
acid and borneol, among other compounds, in amber. Only recently though,
has decisive work on resin constituents been accomplished with a
combination of mass spectroscopy and pyrolysis gas chromatography.
Chemical analysis of succinite has concluded a "labdanoid character" for
this fossil resin, based on work by
Ken Anderson and others; this analysis eliminates the botanical source of
the genus Pinus for Baltic amber (Beck, 1998, p. 57). Dr. Beck and Dr.
Francis Heuber (personal communication, 1998) believe the botanical source
for succinite to be araucarian in origin. Although the tree does not exist
today, it is related to Agathis australis or the huge kauri pine tree
found in New Zealand
Color: varying shades of yellow, orange, red, white, brown, green, bluish,
"black" (deep shades of other colors). Rainbow colors within the amber are
caused by the light interference of air bubbles or strain created during
an insect's death struggle. Some believe the color is related to the type
of tree source. Recent pine trees produce golden yellows, white,
ivory-colors, and occasionally a blue resin. Scientists at the Polish
Museum of Science believe that reddish tints are the resin of deciduous
trees, such as cherry and plum. Dominican amber with a reddish tint is
thought to be related to a leguminous source.
Amber color preferences vary from country to country. The transparent reds
and greens are thought to be the most desirable colors in some countries,
followed by the transparent yellows. The warm, transparent, orange color
seems to be a desirable color for many Americans. Natural amber,
regardless of color, may darken to a mellow brown after long exposure to
air; pressed amber may turn white as it ages.
More information on amber colors is found at Gintaro Galerija Muziejus and
at Dragonfly Amber.com, which includes an amber color chart.
Classification & Structure: organic & amorphous.
Transparency: all graduations from perfectly clear to wholly
opaque, with cloudy turbidity due to the presence of numerous air bubbles
and inclusions. The air in amber is the subject of study also! See Air
bubbles, amber, and dinosaurs by Gary Landis and Dinosaur breath by John
Hardness: 1-3. Burmese amber, or amber from Myanmar, is the hardest
at 3 on the hardness scale; Baltic amber is usually in the range of 2-2.5;
Dominican amber is the softest at 1-2. Geologically younger amber tends to
be softer than amber that has been buried for a long time.
Tenacity & Fracture: tough to brittle, conchoidal fracture. For
its low hardness, amber is remarkably tougher than most gemstones of a
similar hardness. Baltic amber tends to be tougher than retinite amber;
Dominican amber tends to be more brittle and break more easily than other
Specific Gravity: 1.05-1.2 (is buoyant, staying afloat in water
saturated with salt or sea water). The clearest or transparent ambers are
more dense, whereas amber varieties containing numerous air bubbles and
are less dense.
Fluorescence: some pieces fluoresce. The common fluorescent colors
of amber are blue or yellow, and less frequently a green, orange, or
white. In general, resins with higer sulfur content fluoresce more than
those containing less sulfur.
While some people were fishing for food or pearls, others were in search
of the "gold of the north". People did fish for amber in the past. There
is a drawing, first published in Philip J. Hartmann's book from 1677,
which shows fishermen fishing for amber! The sea is the oldest known
source for amber. Prehistoric people picked up amber from the Baltic
shore, when strong storms and winds brought the material up from
amber-bearing strata under the sea. Sea amber or scoopstone has provided a
livelihood for coast-dwellers for many centuries. Amber was named
scoopstone because of the nets used to gather it from the seaweed. These
poles and nets, called "amber-catchers," were first detailed in the
Hartmann book. In marshy regions or areas where the tides were
unpredictable, amber was collected on horseback. These collectors were
called "amber riders". Hartmann also described "amber divers" in his 17th
century book. The divers carried a wooden spade to loosen the amber from
the sea floor. A method of collecting amber in an 1892 publication was
from broad-beamed rowboats. Fishermen would lay over the side of the boat,
rake the bottom and then catch the dislodged lumps of amber in nets. In
some areas large boulders were hauled up from the sea floor to be used as
building stones. Amber was recovered and this method was referred to as
In 1854 Whelhelm Stantien obtained a lease from the government to dredge
for amber. In 1869 Mority Becker joined Stantien to form the business,
Stantien and Becker. They continued increasing their dredging operations
and provided divers with modern equipment for picking amber off the sea
floor. They were working in the Prussian province of Samland, which is
today the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia. Geologists had determined the
glacial debris containing amber in Germany, Denmark, Poland and other
Baltic lands derived from the blue earth or a Tertiary glauconite
formation found in this area. In 1870 Stantien and Becker purchased the
right to mine on land for amber. They built dams to keep the sea back, as
the stratum was below sea level. In 1895 their operation produced a record
high of 1,200,000 pounds (over 540,000 kg) of amber. The government bought
them out in 1899 and once again all amber became the property of the
state. The government operated this Stantien and Becker mine until 1925.
Other mines continued operation with modernized mining and recovery
techniques. Many of the mines were open-pit operations where the blue
earth was scooped onto conveyers to rail cars. The cars were emptied into
the spray house, where pressurized water flushed the amber from the soil.
World War II temporarily halted amber production and by the mid-twentieth
century most Baltic amber was under Soviet control. For more information
regarding amber recovery and environmental degredation, see D. Jacobson's
work, Amber Trade and the Environment in the Kaliningrad Oblast.
In early times, amber was the absolute property of the finder. As amber
became a lucrative business in the Baltic region, dukes, kings, Teutonic
knights and different countries tried to control the collection and sale
of this commodity. Fishing rights were granted and rescinded by the "Amber
Lords" as early as 1264 A.D. When amber was collected without supervision
of a "Beach Master" or "Beach Rider", the unauthorized persons were hung.
Amber guilds were formed in the 14th century to create rosaries and works
of art from the raw material supplied by the Amber Lords. In the 17th
century, fishermen had to swear to the "Amber Oath", which denounced amber
smugglers, and searching for amber was not an option but a requirement.
Some amber fishermen were paid in salt (interesting link though not
directly related to amber and the site loads slowly) for their raw amber,
weight for weight.