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The Golden Touch: Why Is Amber Such A Versatile Material?

Heart on Fire

Amber is often described as a gemstone, but in fact it is a resin that has formed from the decaying organic matter of ancient forests. It’s a unique material that has been highly prized throughout history, not just for its aesthetic appeal, but also for its historic, scientific, medical and cultural value. Here’s a look at the many faces of amber.

Where natural science meets history

Amber is formed from resin, which is a viscous substance that protects trees from damage, pests and disease. You may have noticed it oozing from a gash in the bark or branch of an injured tree. Over time, the resin will harden and seal the break, protecting the tree from further damage. 

It has antiseptic properties that help to ward off disease (more on this later), and it traps pests such as woodworm and other gnawing or burrowing insects in its gummy substance. Sometimes, excess resin will flow down the trunk of the tree. 

As the resin travels earthwards, it accumulates bits of organic matter in its glutinous path, such as small insects, plant matter, soil, and air bubbles. Over many years and decades, trees can become coated in layers of hardened resin. When they eventually die, the timber is carried by rivers and streams towards the coast.

Over the centuries, the resin remains as the timber rots away, and as the liquid evaporates, it hardens and forms into fossilised amber. Certain regions of the world, such as the area around the Baltic Sea in northern Europe, are particularly rich in raw amber because of the thousands of square miles of ancient forests that once existed in upland areas.

The timescale within which this process takes place can vary according to the specific geological conditions of the region, and the chemical composition of the resin. It does need oxygen-free sediments for the formation of amber to take place. Amber can be anything from 40,000 years to several million years old.  

Some of the world’s oldest amber sources are from the Baltic region of Europe, and can be dated to the Eocene epoch, which occurred between 56 and 33.9 million years ago. This makes it the most sought after type of amber, both for its beauty and its medical and scientific value. 

The chemical composition of amber enables it to preserve organic matter. Some pieces of raw amber contain insects, worms, snails, spiders, or even small vertebrates such as reptiles, amphibians, and fish. It may also contain soil particles, water droplets, and air bubbles. 

This provides a rich field of study for natural scientists, who have perfectly preserved examples of ancient species at their disposal. The translucent quality of amber makes it easy to identify pieces of amber that are rich in this invaluable source of information. It can help researchers to unravel the mysteries of evolution and better understand ecosystems.

Human discovery

For centuries, amber lay undisturbed; a secret gem protected by layers of rock and sediment. However, geological and tectonic shifts and erosion eventually revealed amber deposits to the human race. Soon, the special qualities of this substance were recognised, not just for its beautiful warm rich colour, but also for its medicinal properties.

The antiseptic properties that have protected trees over millions of years are still active in a substance called succinic acid. Raw Baltic amber is particularly dense in this substance, which can be released when the amber is gently warmed. This is why amber has traditionally been used to ease ailments and infections.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of this ancient approach to medicine. For example, it’s now possible to buy raw Baltic amber teething necklaces for babies. Some parents find that these products are useful for calming a fretful baby who is in pain as their first teeth emerge. 

The necklace is placed around the neck of the infant, and the amber beads are gradually warmed by the skin. It is thought that this releases small amounts of succinic acid, which is absorbed through the skin and into the baby’s bloodstream. It may offer relief from discomfort and reduce a feverish temperature.

However, the baby must be supervised at all times when they are wearing the necklace to avoid the risk of choking.