Baltic Amber formed naturally in a wide variety of colors, a small sampling of which is shown here. (Photo by Michal Kosior, in the Public Domain)
Crystal System: Amorphous (does not have a crystalline structure)
Hardness: Amber: 2-2.5, Copal: 1.5-2.5
Colors: it is said that there are over 250 different shades of Amber. Some of the better known colors are: honey, lemon, cherry, green, and the rare blue.
Amber is a fossilized tree resin that has been known and used, both decoratively and medicinally, since Neolithic times (approximately 10,200 B.C. – 2,000 B.C.). The resins that form Amber are from the vascular tissues of trees. Many different types of trees exude this substance when they are injured, or during times of extreme climate change, as a self-healing mechanism. In the case of Amber, it must have been somethings pretty extreme (one theory was a period of global warming, another suggests that the trees were affected by some as yet unidentified disease) for that many trees to exude the resin in such huge amounts at the same time. Whatever the cause, at the time that this all happened, that sticky, fragrant resin would have been everywhere- coating the forest floor, hanging from the trees, just covering everything! Some of the massive lumps of Amber that are still being found today support this, as they can weigh 9 pounds or more.
But, just trees exuding resin, even in large amounts, does not necessarily mean that Amber will form. The resin has to undergo a variety of physical and chemical changes, under rather specialized conditions, for many thousands of years, before it becomes Amber.
Copal, on the other hand, is not considered a “true” Amber. Yes, it is a type of aromatic, gummy resin secreted from trees in times of distress. But, it is not as old as true Amber. In fact, Copal is an intermediate stage during the formation of Amber. Today it is oftentimes sold as Amber, but true Amber is a little bit harder and a lot more valuable. Copal is usually from Mesoamerica or East Africa.
Amber is mined globally, with Baltic Amber being the most well-known. Caribbean Amber is also quite famous, partly due to the unusual and rare colors that have been found, such as fluorescent green and blue. Blue Amber is found in the Dominican Republic. In artificial light it looks like a regular piece of Amber. But, hold it in the sunlight, and it glows an intense shade of fluorescent blue. Held under ultraviolet light and it turns a bright milky blue. When blue Amber is cut, it emits a very distinctive, but pleasant odor, which is different from other colors of Amber. Blue Amber is very rare.
Real green Amber is also quite rare, and completely different from the green Amber commonly found for sale today. That “green Amber” has been treated in some way to get the green color (I’ll talk more about that in a minute), which is beautiful, kind of a medium olive or mossy green. Real, natural green Amber is a mix of clear Amber, and Amber that is a pale yellowish-green. It’s a very distinctive color, very different from the treated green Amber, and so it is easy to identify even if you haven’t seen it before. There is usually a lot of sediment and other organic material present in the natural green Amber as well. Because of this, it is sometimes called “earth Amber”.
The two photos above show a flower pendant made of different colors of Baltic Amber set in Silver. All the Amber shows signs of heat treating. The green pieces have been blackened, as is very obvious from the back view. When held up to the light, all the Amber in this piece is transparent except for the two green pieces. This is what you typically get when you purchase “green” Baltic Amber, particularly in jewelry.
Most Amber, particularly that used in jewelry, has been heat treated. This is done to improve the color and clarity, as most raw Amber is opaque. Heating can also add “spangles”, those little glittering spots, to a piece of Amber. It also makes the stone a bit more durable, which is important since Amber is very soft. Another treatment occasionally done to Amber is called “pressed Amber ” or “amberoid”. Pressing is when small pieces of Amber, or Amber powder, are melted down (usually only partly, unless powder is being used) and pressed together to create a larger piece. This usually improves the clarity of the stone, without changing its other properties, but, sometimes a color or dye may be added during this process, so I personally would avoid it. Unfortunately, it is a rather common practice. More rarely, a piece of Amber will be dyed or stained to improve its color. Again, I prefer to avoid this if possible.
The treatments discussed above are applicable to pretty much any color of Amber, but there are certain treatments that are more color-specific. Green Amber, for example, is not always naturally green. It is frequently created by applying low heat and pressure in an autoclave. This simulates a rapid aging process, while also creating the green color. It also helps to give Copal a stability similar to that of Amber. Occasionally, green Amber is also created by blackening (with jeweler’s paste) or painting the bottom of a cabochon of pale honey colored Amber. Another method of blackening is to burn the back of an Amber cabochon, so that from the top it appears to be some shade of green.
Another treatment which can be applied to any color of Amber is the creation of a doublet, although this is not done very frequently. This may be called a “doublet” or it may be called “assembled”. Basically, they take a thin slice of Amber and attach it to a thin piece of some other material, often manmade. This is done to improve the color, but it should always be disclosed- usually you can tell by a close examination of the stone whether this has been done or not. However, I feel it is unnecessary to do this with Amber, and usually is a sign that the stone is of very poor quality. So if it has not been disclosed up front, that really raises a red flag to me.
You need to be very careful when purchasing Amber, not only because of the treatments, but because there are a lot of fakes out there. Many “Amber” beads are just Amber colored plastic. Also, be aware that many specimens and souvenirs of Amber that have insects or other creatures trapped inside may not be genuine- some of them are plastic or synthetic resin (which is also a kind of plastic) that has actually been poured over the creature while it was still alive. It sickens me that anyone would do this, I cannot begin to say how much! But it has been documented, and I think it’s very important to be aware of it so that you can avoid accidentally purchasing something so terrible. Again, this is why it’s so very important to find a dealer you can trust, instead of just buying the first thing that catches your eye. One shop I have found that is actually certified as using only genuine Baltic Amber is Andzia’s Amber Jewelry. I have ordered from them before, and was very happy with the items I received, as well as with their customer service.
Because Amber and Copal are so soft, you need to be very careful with them. Don’t leave them sitting in direct light for any length of time, and be sure to keep them away from any heat sources. Do not let them come into contact with anything abrasive. Avoid contact with perfumes, lotions, solvents (including chlorinated water),alcohol etc, and never use an ultrasonic cleaner. To clean Amber or Copal, just wipe it gently with a soft, slightly dampened cloth. These stones can be scratched very easily too, so take care when wearing or handling them. If your Amber seems to be losing its luster, I have heard that rubbing it with a drop of olive oil on a soft cloth can restore it.
Amber and Copal have a long history, and quite a bit of lore surrounding them. I will be covering those fascinating aspects of these beautiful stones in my next post.