Amit Kapoor of Saffronart shares a note on this organic gem from pre-historic times
New Delhi: Amber is hardened tree resin with a dual distinction: one, being extremely old – up to 150 million years – and two, having been used to craft ornaments for thousands of years. Amber has been appreciated for its colour and natural beauty since Neolithic times. Valued as a gemstone, amber is made into a variety of decorative objects.
Amber was discussed by Theophrastus, possibly the first historical mention of the material, in the 4th century BC. The Greek name for amber was elektron, meaning ‘formed by the sun’, and it was connected to the sun god (Helios), also known as Elector or the Awakener. According to the myth, when Helios’ son Phaëton was killed, his mourning sisters became poplar trees, and their tears became elektron or amber.
Because it originates as a soft, sticky tree resin, amber sometimes contains animal and plant material as inclusions. The presence of insects in amber was first noticed by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, and this led him to theorize correctly that, at some point, amber had to be in a liquid state to cover the bodies of insects.
The scientific community is interested in amber for different reasons, most famously for studying the organic inclusions found in some amber samples. Perfectly preserved plant-structures and the remains of insects and other small creatures, which became trapped in the sap as it oozed out of the tree, have been found in amber, increasing our knowledge of the flora and fauna of prehistoric times.
Insects included in amber formed the basis of the movie ‘Jurassic Park’, whose story involves the cloning dinosaurs from DNA found in dinosaur blood sucked up by prehistoric mosquitoes preserved in amber. The movie generated great interest in the gem.
Amber may be treated to darken them or create beautiful inclusion called ‘sun spangles’, which have the appearance of bright circular marks.
Amber is also used as an ingredient in perfumes, as a healing agent in folk medicine, and set in jewelry. Most often, amber is found in small nuggets which are opaque and brown in colour, however it does occur in naturally wide variety of colours ranging from yellow to brown to reds and even blue! Red and blue are the rarest colours, and fetch a high value.