Amber

July 22, 2020

Found in ancient Egyptian tombs back in 3200 BC, amber is one prehistoric gem that has stood the test of time.

Amber is one of those gems that has been of uttermost interest to scientists, archaeologists and many others. However, with a gem that is so interesting and holds so much history there will always be misconceptions when it comes to science – lack of accurate, up-to-date and available information and the influence of movies and the media can lead to a great deal of interesting interpretations. The jewellery and the gemmology industries are certainly not immune to these tall tales and although they may be fantastical and intriguing (and possibly helping to sell a particular stone) the truth will always be what science strives for.

With the release of the Jurassic World movies this has revisited the concept of cloning dinosaurs from DNA found in the dinosaur blood sucked up by prehistoric mosquitos that have been trapped within amber for millions of years. Whether or not this is possible, plausible or completely preposterous it is first and foremost important for our own knowledge to understand what amber is and how It forms before we let our minds run away with the possibilities of having our own pet brontosaurus (an herbivore thankfully).

Amber has been used as jewelry since 11,000 BC and even more interestingly the ancient roman women use to rub the stones in their hands as they believed that it would make them appear more youthful. Formed of fossilized tree resin commonly ranging in age from 1 million to 300 million years old, amber is classified as an organic gem material that has been worn as jewellery and used for carvings since the dawn of time. Chemically, amber is a hydrocarbon (an organic compound of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen) although the chemical compositions are quite variable between the different worldwide sources. Unearthed predominantly in the Baltic Sea region of Europe, it is also found in the Dominican Republic, Myanmar, Sicily, Romania and Mexico.

A tree may exude resin (a different substance to sap) as a defence against injury, disease and/or insect and fungal attack. The resin is initially a soft, sticky substance engulfing bit of bark, insects, plant/flower parts as it gracefully oozes out from resin canals within the tree. Not all tree resin is destined to become amber. Much like all fossils there are specific conditions of heat, pressure and biological environments that are required for the mechanism to take place. The process of transformation from tree resin to amber is described as ‘amberisation’ and is a two-part process.

Over the course of 2-10 million years the resin first begins to harden through a process of molecular polymerization. Here the resin must be in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) condition under layers of overlying sediment where the aid of pressure and heat can transform the soft resin into harder and more stable ‘copal’ resin. From here, sustained conditions of heat and pressure can further evaporate terpenes (organic compounds within the resin) to form a hard, solid natural plastic (amber).

Although famous for that beloved ‘amber glow,’ it can also be white, yellow, orange to reddish brown and found as either transparent to opaque. Rarely, amber may show a strong blue fluorescence in daylight that can give a blueish to green hue. Typically, transparent material is most sought after the darker the colour the more valuable, but inclusions play a huge part in the final value. Scientists and collectors treasure amber that contains animal or plant debris, as they’re a fascinating peek into our planet’s primordial past.

Natural oxidation can darken amberover time and colour and clarity can be improved by heat treatment and dyeing. Opaque amber contains tiny gas bubble inclusions that give it a cloudy appearance. This material is commonly treated by careful heating in rapeseed (canola) oil to infill the cavities and improve clarity. The slow cooling is imperative to minimise the occurrence of identifying circular stress fractures described as ‘sun spangles’. These delicate inclusions are evidence that this clarification process or heat treatment has taken place.

Bunny Bedi, owner and designer at Made In Earth, has found this gem to be a loyal gemstone of his vast collection. “There is always a strong and steady demand for amber. Generations of people have loved and appreciated its natural beauty and astonishing prehistoric inclusions. Like most gemstones, there are plenty of imitations and consumers need to be aware. Being a light weight, soft, natural, plastic there are many simple and cheaper materials available to imitate it. Man made plastics, glass and composites are most commonly used and occasionally with insects implanted that can fool most people.”

It’s always great to see a gemstone, crystal or item of jewellery be a pivotal object in the plot of a blockbuster. It sparks a conversation about the amazing wonders of our world and hopefully initiates further research and education. The possibility of cloning dinosaurs using the inclusions with amber may not be possible but it doesn’t hurt to dream. Although without giving too much away, and as much as I’d love to visit Jurassic World, if it were possible, withholding the truth might be the best idea for humanity’s sake.


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