Amber is the fossilized resin of 50-million-year-old conifer trees, usually pines. The most sought-after amber comes from the Baltic region and is golden and translucent. Less common is white or so-called bone amber, while amber in red, violet, green, and transparent yellow is rarer still.
Like gemstones, amber is prized for its clarity and transparency. But the inclusions in amber are often the most interesting things about the material. Because amber began as a liquid, all sorts of things got stuck in it, from lichen and pine needles to insects and even reptiles. The book and subsequent film “Jurassic Park” were based on the premise that dinosaur blood could be extracted from a mosquito preserved in amber. So who knows: That pendant around your neck or the bangle on your wrist may contain the DNA of a velociraptor!
Baltic amber is often labeled as succinite. This amber is variously described as being clear, cloudy, fatty, and foamy. All can be made into beads (sometimes faceted) for necklaces, as well as cabochons for rings. When polished, amber will not shine and catch light like diamonds, rubies, and other brilliant gems, but it will glow with what’s often referred to as a resinous luster. Foamy amber, however, is chalkier that other types, so it doesn’t take polishing well at all.
Types of non-Baltic amber include simetite, a red-to-orange variety found in Sicily; dark, sulphur-rich Roumanian amber; and Burmite, which is also known as Chinese amber even though it comes from present-day Myanmar. The rarest form of Dominican amber from the Dominican Republic is blue amber, whose color varies from blue to yellow depending on how sunlight hits it.
The biggest problem with amber for collectors, as with many other gems, is the rampant number of fakes in the marketplace. One of the most common substitutes for amber is copal, which is similar to amber in that it’s also a tree resin, except it’s not as old, which means it will get sticky when rubbed vigorously with a piece of cloth. In contrast, amber will become fragrant when subjected to friction.
Just because amber is harder than copal, though, doesn’t mean it’s as hard as a, well, rock. Small chunks of amber are routinely heated and pressed together with linseed oil to create ambroid (sometimes spelled “amberoid”), which is then cut and polished into larger cabochons or beads. To spot ambroid, look for long air bubbles trapped within the gem. To distinguish amber from synthetic materials, pierce it with a hot needle; amber will smoke while substitutes will simply melt.
Some unscrupulous dealers will sell fake amber with perfectly preserved insect specimens inside them. These large beads or pendants may make attractive show pieces, but as with most things in life, if it looks too good to be true it probably is.