Weekend brunch #2: the hidden charm of amber

When building and enhancing an accessories or jewellery collection, it is worth having an array of fine-vault-worthy pieces, as well as extraordinary yet more everyday pieces. This is made possible by the astonishing beauties that stem from nature’s way of forming and maintaining superb creations…
One of which is amber. A noncrystalline, organic compound used ornamentally since Neolithic times. Today it is found in nodules (similar to tree resin), in and around the Baltic coastal regions – hence one of the tests of authenticity is the ability to float in saltwater; Burma (Myanmar), Dominican Republic, and United Kingdom, specifically in continental alluvial deposits.

(c) Rothamsted Research Visual Communications Unit
(c) Rothamsted Research Visual Communications Unit

Amber has a resinous lustre, good transparency, and colour ranging from brown-yellow, honey, whisky hues, red (more rarely blue, white, and green), all of which are attributed to the tree source. As such also rather excitingly, as it begins to decompose and comes in contact with heat, it emits an aromatic scent, similar to that of a pine tree. Additionally aside from provenance, a widely known component integral to the value (thus often pricing) of amber, is the animal remains that at times may include extinct species. Examples include insects, arachnids, myriapods, wasps, bees, ants, gnats; more bizarrely frogs, lizards and grasshoppers.

(c) Natural History Museum (London, England). "This rare specimen of a harvestman preserved in amber is 34-40 million years old. It was donated to [the Natural History] Museum by Terence Collingwood.
(c) Natural History Museum (London, England). “This rare specimen of a harvestman preserved in amber is 34-40 million years old. It was donated to [the Natural History] Museum by Terence Collingwood.

Other visual attributes include radial veins and opaque to semi-opaque composition, which is usually treated to make it transparent. If there are visible cracks on the surface, this is as a result of dehydration from heat exposure. Amber as old as 1000 years has been found in deposits that have been transferred by river, and thus remained ‘hydrated’ with no noticeable cracks.

The value of amber increases with age, quality, and as mentioned above the (type and age of) extinct species. With a refractive index of 1.54 and low density – light and easy to wear – it is easily fashioned into pieces of jewellery, carvings or for engraving, and decorative items. Whilst it is of less value than centuries before, it is still of high enough value for us to have created inexpensive substitutes, such as copal and plastics. In addition ambroid, is a synthetic amber that is as a result of heating (at high temperature) and compressing small pieces of amber, and at times other resins also.

It would be fantastic to have an amber collection to rival that of Archduchess Maria Maddalena of Austria, however pieces cut en cabochon, cameo, polished or beaded necklace, shall suffice for now!