Gemstone Focus: What is amber and how is it formed?

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Natural Amber, Round Cabochon (61AB BPMA)

Amber is probably one of the most easily recognisable ‘gemstones’ in existence – and I use the term ‘gemstone’ very loosely, because amber is in fact not a stone at all but an organic plant resin which has become fossilised over millions of years. The distinctive warm yellow/orange colour of the raw amber stone is quite unlike any other material used in jewellery, and combined with its soft resinous lustre it is quite a unique substance.

What is amber?

Natural amber is one of a group of materials known as ‘organics’ which also includes coral, pearl, shell, jet and ivory, and basically means objects which were once alive. Obviously none of these materials are technically stones but are all naturally occurring, and considered beautiful enough to be used for decorative purposes such as in natural amber jewellery pieces and also for carvings and other small ornamental objects. If you were to consider amber stone properties, it would appear to be a most unsuitable material to work with as it is incredibly soft (only 2.5 on Mohs Scale of Hardness), making it almost impossible to facet. Instead amber gemstones tend to be formed into beads or cabochons, which can then be successfully incorporated into jewellery.

Unusual amber gemstone properties

One of the most attractive features of natural amber is the ‘foreign bodies’ and inclusions that are contained within it. When it was formed, millions of years ago amber was a sticky, liquid resin which literally oozed out of trees engulfing anything which got in its path. Consequently, all manner of insects and seeds have been found inside nuggets of fossilised amber which have been perfectly preserved, providing zoologists and scientists with valuable insights and information from the Jurassic period and beyond. In fact, the idea of extracting DNA from insects preserved in raw amber stone is the premise on which the whole Jurassic Park film franchise is based!

The value of amber stones with unusual inclusions

The most prized specimens of amber are always those containing insects, and in some rare cases small animals such as frogs and lizards which will always command a higher value. However, there is another effect called spangling, which is actually caused by small internal cracks that create a characteristic speckled appearance which we associate with good quality amber gemstones – due to its water content, amber is prone to drying out when exposed to heat or sun and this can lead to cracks. Heat treatment (when cloudy amber is heated in oil) is often used to intensify this potential ‘problem’, thereby making it a positive feature which is commonly known as Sun Spangled Amber.

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Sun Spangled Amber (image source: carolinebacher.com)

Because of its light weight and resinous lustre, amber is easily imitated using modern plastics and it can be difficult to distinguish the authentic from the fake. One of the more alarming methods of identification involves pushing a hot needle into your questionable piece of amber, as it has a very distinctive sweet, pine fragrance which will be emitted when heated. Although quite an interesting fact, it’s not recommended that you attempt this at home so it’s probably best to leave identification to the experts if in any doubt!

The history and inception of this substance is truly captivating, and gives us a fascinating insight into the past that you simply won’t find in any other gem.

Amber’s distinctive orange colour is perfect for adding a touch of warmth to your designs this Summer – so why not explore our range of Amber Gemstones now and give it a go?

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