Most Amber has a hardness ranging between 2.0 and 2.5, a refractive index of 1.5–1.6, a specific gravity between 1.06 and 1.10, and a melting point of 250–300 °C. By gemstone standards, it is very soft but, as a result, conveniently workable for necklaces or earrings.
It occurs in various colors, and some pieces are transparent, while others are cloudy or opaque. As well as the usual yellow-orange-brown colors, it can range from pale lemon yellow to brown to almost black. Uncommon colors include red, sometimes known as "cherry amber," green, and even extremely rare blue Amber.
Amber is produced from the resinous marrow discharged by the trunks and branches of pine, gum, and cherry trees. Oozing as an ultra-sticky liquid, this prehistoric resin gradually hardens over millions of years. The small plants, animals, and insects that became trapped within it give us a view of life at the time. It often emits a pine-like smell when rubbed or ignited and is known for this coniferous odor.
Amber and Copal are easily confused. While Copal is also made from tree resin, it's not nearly as old as Amber. What makes Amber have the demand and value that it does is its age. Copal is softer and does not have the same properties as Amber because it hasn't had enough time to fossilize. Copal resin most often comes from the aromatic copal tree and can also be burned as incense.
The name "amber" is thought to be derived from the Arabic word ambar, meaning ambergris. Ambergris is the waxy aromatic substance created in the intestines of sperm whales used in making perfumes in both ancient and recent history.
Although burning Amber does give off a characteristic "pinewood" fragrance, modern products, such as perfume, rarely employ it because the scent is not strong enough. In perfumery, the scents referred to as "amber" are more often other concoctions created and patented to emulate that scent.
Amber is found in many places worldwide, but the largest and most exciting deposits are from the Dominican Republic, the Baltic regions of Europe, Lebanon, and Myanmar (Burma). As each area represents a different era of Earth's geologic past, we can learn much from the fossilized plants, animals, and insects trapped inside. Amber has also been reported from Madagascar, Japan, Mexico, Indonesia, Ukraine, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, France, Spain, USA, Germany, Poland, and Russia.
Dominican Amber is the youngest, between 16 and 20 million years old. Like its Dominican counterpart, Baltic Amber typically includes ants, flies, and lizards and is 40 million years old. Burmese Amber, whose vertebrate diversity is unparalleled, is almost 100 million years old, but Lebanese Amber is even older at 130 million years old. By comparing the species and ecosystems represented in the specimens, scientists can hypothesize about extinction, conservation, and the evolutionary history of the species we see today.
The most common method of determining Amber's age is by looking at the insects contained within it. By determining when the insects became extinct, we can surmise that the Amber must be at least that old. As technology has progressed, more technical methods of dating amber have been developed.
Another effective method for determining age is called exomethylene signature dating, which compares the decay of chemicals trapped inside. Spectroscopy and Differential Scanning calorimetry and uranium-lead dating can also be used to determine the age of Amber.
The oldest Amber with significant numbers of arthropod inclusions like crustaceans, insects, millipedes, and centipedes comes from Lebanon. More than 450 outcroppings of Lower Cretaceous amber have been unearthed, and some have yielded biological inclusions comprising the oldest representatives of their species. Many remarkable insects and spiders were also recently discovered in nearby Jordan, including the oldest zorapterans, clerid beetles, umenocoleid roaches, and achiliid planthoppers.
This Amber referred to as Lebanese Amber, is roughly 125 - 135 million years old. It is considered of high scientific value, providing evidence of some of the oldest sampled ecosystems. Recently, more aged Jurassic Amber has been found.
The most important Amber from the Cretaceous era (145 million to 65 million years ago) is the Burmese Amber from the Hukawng Valley in the Kachin state of northern Myanmar. Burmese Amber is the hottest property in paleontology and is stuffed full of incredible fossils, including even dinosaur and bird parts.
China borders the Kachin State to the north and east (Tibet and Yunnan), the Shan State to the south, and India to the west. It is a wild and mountainous region forming the tip of the Himalayas. It's highest mountain, Hkakabo Razi (5,889 meters (19,321 ft), constitutes the southern tip of the Himalayas.
The area has off and on been autonomous since independence from Britain in 1948. The Kachin conflict or Kachin War is one of the multiple conflicts collectively referred to as the internal conflict in Myanmar.
The story of both Burmese jade and Amber is inextricably tied to the turbulent history of Kachin. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fought a long and bloody war against the Burmese government, with an official ceasefire in 1994. Still, tensions and outbreaks of violence persist, with security services asserting a heavy presence in the area.
While the roadblocks and curfews may help keep an uneasy peace, the area is dangerous and known for narcotics production and trafficking. The amber market in Myitkyina, but the actual mining occurs closer to Danai. Foreigners were until recently allowed in Myitkyina, but Danai is off-limits. Most buyers are from nearby China, and they pay the highest prices for the best specimens.
Burma Amber and Burmese Amber are all different names for the same thing, but Burmite remains the most common name for Burmese Amber.
Burmese Amber was formed during the Late Cretaceous, approximately 99 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. Over 1300 species have been described, with over 300 in 2019 alone. The Amber from this region is by far the most interesting for its fossils' breadth and diversity.
In part because of their proximity to the deposit, Chinese collectors and scientists have been rigorous in collecting and identifying everything inside. Burmese Amber is by far the best source of Cenomanian insect fossils and full of surprises.
It has been commercially exploited since the first century AD and has been known to science since the mid-nineteenth century. The Amber is of significant palaeontological interest due to the diversity of flora and fauna contained as inclusions, especially arthropods including birds, lizards, snakes, spiders, scorpions, beetles, ants, nematodes, gastropods, frogs, snakes, lizards, and geckos. In 2015, even a part of a dinosaur's tail was identified. Well over 1000 species of invertebrates have been uncovered from this deposit.
The Amber is referred to in ancient Chinese sources as originating from Yunnan Province as early as the first century AD, but trade with China had been ongoing for centuries. The amber locality itself was known to European explorers since the 1800s. At the time, the valley's mines' principal products were salt, gold, and Amber. The early mines were marked with numerous abandoned pits, up to 15ft or 4.6m in depth. Mining was being performed manually at the time by sharpened bamboo rods and small wooden shovels. Better pieces were supposedly recovered from the deeper pits, with transparent yellow retrieved from depths of 40 ft (12 m). The recovered Amber was bought with silver or often exchanged for jackets, hats, copper pots, or opium, among other goods.
Women of the valley wore amber earrings as part of their jewelry.
Even today, the working conditions at these mines are extremely unsafe. Deep pits and tunnels down to 100 m (330 ft) barely wide enough to crawl through are the norms. Deposits of Amber from other regions in Myanmar exist but have yet to produce considerable quantities. Most Amber is smuggled into China for jewelry, and estimates of up to 100 tonnes reportedly passed through to the primary market of Tenchong, Yunnan in 2015. With the recent military coup and the coronavirus, Myanmar is shut off to air traffic, and even the internet is down.
All Dominican Amber is fluorescent, and the rarest color is blue. It turns blue in natural sunlight or any other partially or wholly ultraviolet light source. In long-wave UV light, it reflects white. Only about 100 kg or 220 lbs is found per year, which makes it valuable and expensive.
Found along the Baltic Sea's southern shore, yellow Amber reached the Middle East and western Europe via trade. It was known to the Persians as kah-ruba, referring to its electrical properties. Indeed, rubbing Amber will produce a static charge, which is the easiest way to identify it.
The most highly prized Amber is transparent, but it is more commonly cloudy or opaque any many pieces contain minute bubbles. Sometimes, Amber retains drops and stalactites, just as it exuded from the trees' ducts and receptacles. It is thought that, in addition to seeping, the resin also flowed into hollow cavities or cracks within the trees, thereby leading to the development of large lumps of Amber of irregular form and root amber.
How Do We Know If Amber Is Authentic?
Amber might be the most frequently faked fossil, and with the invention of plastics, it has become even easier. In some cases, holes are drilled in natural Amber, modern insects added, and the voids infilled in with resin. We should always be suspicious of large insects and other fossils preserved in Amber, as larger insects can usually struggle free.
For those interested in purchasing Amber, determining authenticity is essential. Buying from reputable sellers is ideal. To make sure, rub the Amber on a natural cloth and see if it builds a static charge. Small bits of paper or hair will be attracted and cling to it. If this occurs, the Amber is likely authentic. Amber will also warm quickly when held in hand.
Differentiating Amber and Copal:
Using the appropriate scratch sticks (or a fingernail) to test hardness, one should be able to tell quickly if the material is Amber or Copal. Amber has a hardness of 2-3 on Moh's scale while Copal registers around 1.5. Therefore, the Copal can be scratched with just a fingernail while the Ambar cannot.
Amber and Copal react differently to UV light. If the stone has no color change at all, it is Copal. If the stone changes to a pale shade of blue under the UV light, it is Amber.
The friction test is easy to do anywhere. Rub the mystery stone vigorously with a soft cloth, preferably made of wool. If it is true Amber, it will start to give off a resinous smell. If it is Copal, the friction created will cause the stone to become soft and sometimes even sticky to the touch.
Differences in density and be observed in a saline solution of table salt and lukewarm water. If the gem is Amber, it should float. If the material is Copal, it will sink.
If the gem starts to melt slightly where poked with a hot needle, it is Copal. If it does not melt as immediately and emits a sooty, piney scent, it is Amber. This destructive test should only be performed on a less obvious location on the gem, such as on the back of a set-piece.
Is Amber still popular? Its popularity reached a pinnacle in the 1990s with the Jurassic Park movie about dinosaurs recreated from DNA in Amber. Maybe it's less popular now than back then, but it's been collected for 13,000 years, so 10 or 20 years don't mean much. The main buyers of specimen amber are scientists, collectors, and museums, but the ancient insects and their accidental encapsulation fascinate all. Even young children will marvel at the critters inside. How cool, a 100-million-year-old ant preserved in pine goo? As they first ponder the enormity of geological time, perhaps that little bug will inspire the next generations of fossickers or entomologists.