What is amber?

What is Amber?

Amber is fossilized resin from coniferous trees. Resin provides the tree protection against insects and fungi. It is a sticky substance in which insects or plant residues can easily get caught and eventually enclosed. The resin can harden once it is cut off from the air. This hardening, a process that takes millions of years, is also called fossilization. After several thousand years, semi-fossil resin is created, which is also called copal. Unlike amber, these pieces still contain enclosed oils. When the resin is fully hardened and no longer contains liquid parts, it is referred to as amber.

Origin of Amber

Most resins that later hardened into amber were produced by coniferous trees in Scandinavia during the Eocene era (which lasted from 55.8 to 33.9 million years ago). At that time, the climate was relatively mild and the Scandinavian area was characterized by extensive pine forests.

About 35 million years ago, the sea level began to rise, and the amber eroded from the Scandinavian forest soil. The precursors of the Baltic rivers picked up the amber and deposited it at the river mouths located further south. Later, the amber eroded again and was again taken by the river 'Eridanos', the precursor of today's German rivers 'Weser', 'Ems', and 'Elbe'. Eventually, the Scandinavian land ice distributed the amber over the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. As a result, amber pieces can even be washed up on the beach in the Netherlands.

Humans and Amber

The Greeks and Romans already understood how amber was formed. The Greek philosopher Aristotle described amber as 'succinum' or 'juice stone'. During the Middle Ages, all this knowledge was lost, and more unusual ideas about amber arose. It was believed that amber was solidified petroleum from the sea or even solidified whale foam. It was not until 1757 that the Russian scholar Lomonosov clarified the origin of amber.

Various Types of Amber

The most common Baltic amber is known by the name: Baltic amber or succinite. These pieces were formed by the pine Pinus succinifera. Other coniferous trees also provided amber, but often in much smaller quantities. The best-known examples are:

  • Pale yellow and translucent Gedenite
  • Matte black and opaque Stantienite
  • Brown Beckerite

The biggest difference to succinite is that these types contain fewer amber acids and are therefore somewhat softer and easier to break.

Organic Semi-Precious Stone

Since amber is fossilized resin, it belongs together with pearls and red corals to the few organic semi-precious stones. It is still not clear whether amber should be considered a mineral (without crystal structure) or a fossil. The name amber is derived from the German word Bernstein, which in turn is derived from the Low German word 'Börnen', meaning 'to burn'. Amber consists of organic compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which means that amber is flammable.

Inclusions in Amber

The most beautiful thing about amber are the enclosed flora and fauna. Most often, insects, spiders, and plant residues ended up in the resin when it was still soft and sticky. The unique thing about these fossils is the state in which they have been preserved. Unlike other fossils, the soft parts are still visible here. Although the fossils are discolored, science can still draw a lot of information from the stones about the era in which the resin was created. A piece of amber can therefore be considered a time capsule in which time has stood still for millions of years.


Amber has the unique property of becoming statically charged through friction. The Greeks early on named amber 'electron' (ηλεκτρον), from which our word for electricity was later derived. They discovered that the stone attracted pieces of papyrus and feathers after being rubbed with a woolen cloth. This was regarded as something magical for a long time. It was therefore believed that amber possessed its own soul.

Amber and Spirituality

Over the centuries, many peoples have regarded amber as a very spiritual stone. Thus, gladiators in Roman arenas carried amber with them for more luck during the battles, and the Celtic sun cult revered the stone. To this day, amber necklaces are often given to young children to soothe teething pains. The belief that amber contains positive energy probably stems from the static properties of the stone. Today, amber necklaces and bracelets are also worn by many people who believe in the positive energy and healing properties of amber.

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