Amber – A description

Amber is fossilized resin from trees that has turned solid as a result of millions of years of evolution. Amber used to be a sticky resin from trees that seeped out through the bark to protect them from injury and solidifies upon contact with air, or through fissures in their bark. This habit is still widespread today, among trees all over the world. It is the blood of the trees, and meant to patch up wounds in their bark and prevent infection of diseases. A good example would be rubber from rubber trees.

This same scenario was happening millions of years ago. The resin oozed down the sides of trees whenever their bark was injured, probably from a passing dinosaur, and often times, it trapped insects and other debris like leaves, pollen, flowers, and even small creatures like frogs along the way. The resin hardened when it was exposed to the air, and over time, the molecules in it hardened more and more due to natural polymerization and oxidation, in a process that took many millions of years; most amber is estimated to be around 30-90 million years old.

Over time, the trees fell down and died and new generations of trees replaced them. The older layers got buried under increasing sediment in which the major rocks consisted of sedimentary shale, clay, or sandstone. Many trees and plant fragments got washed down rivers and ended up in estuaries where they were gradually buried by other plant material. The resin from those trees hardened into amber while the wood turned into lignite. On the hardness scale, Amber has a usual hardness of between 2-4 on the Mohs scale, depending on variety and location.

amber-fire.jpg

Today, mineralogists call amber succinite, a term derived from the acid called succinic acid which is found in true amber, although the word amber may have come from the Arabic word, amber, in which they meant ambergris, which is actually a wax-like substance found in sperm whales intestines. Succinic acid is the substance that gives amber its distinct aroma when burned.

Succinic acid composition of between 3% – 8 %, defines true amber from other types of fossilized plant resins. Amber of such type can be found from amber originating in the Baltic Sea regions which has a high yield of succinic acid.

Today, most amber is extracted from the Baltic Sea region, with the Russian province of Sambia said to produce the best grade amber. As a whole the Russian province of Kaliningrad supplies much of the world’s amber. Other major amber producing regions include all the other countries which share a coastline with the Baltic Sea, such as Poland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, etc.

Amber is also found in places far from the Baltic Sea, although these often are not “true amber” in the sense they may not have the minimum levels of succinic acid to be classed as true amber from a mineralogist’s point of view. Other regions producing fine amber include the Dominican Republic, USA, Myanmar, Canada, and Japan.

amber beads

Amber beads. The color can vary quite a bit as you can see. Genuine amber is quite expensive because it is relatively rare.

The Dominican Republic produces a kind of amber that is fascinating, for the fact that there is a type of amber there which is of a “blue” variety due to the occurrence of a hydrocarbon compound within that causes it to appear blue when light shines on it but a normal golden honey color when light shines through it.

A common fossilized resin that resembles amber is copal. The main difference between amber and copal is the age; copal is at best a couple of million years old, whereas amber is 30-90 million years old. Copal can best be described as an immature form of amber that will only become true amber after further tens of millions of years. It has its own qualities, but should not be confused with amber.

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Categories: Amber.