Dall'arabo anbar/ambar, l'ambra grigia. L’ambra è detta succinum in latino ed ëlektron in greco. Resina fossilizzata di una conifera terziaria (Pinus succinifera); di colore dal giallo chiaro al bruno rossiccio (raramente con toni sul blu e sul verde), ha lucentezza vitrea ed è a volte trasparente. Viene detta anche ambra gialla per distinguerla da un'altra sostanza indicata con lo stesso termine (ambra grigia). L'ambra è costituita da carbonio (78%), ossigeno (11%), idrogeno (10%) e zolfo (1%); per riscaldamento a più di 400 ºC dà acido succinico; si elettrizza per sfregamento (ecco spiegata l'etimologia di elettricità, da ëlektron) ed è un ottimo materiale isolante. I giacimenti più noti di ambra sono quelli delle coste baltiche, della Sicilia, della Birmania, del Canada e della Romania, tutti di età oligocenica.

Ambra grigia

Sostanza presente nell'intestino posteriore del capodoglio (Physeter catodon = Physeter macrocephalus) sotto forma di concrezioni. Ha consistenza cerosa, colore grigio e forte odore di muschio; si trova sulle coste del Madagascar, delle Molucche e del Giappone dove viene gettata dalle onde. Per il suo aroma intensissimo fu un profumo ricercato nel Medioevo e oggi è impiegata nella cosmesi per la preparazione di essenze.


Resina fossile essudata da conifere oggi estinte, a partire dal Giurassico. Presenta un colore giallo o giallo-bruno e si trova in forme arrotondate o irregolari, in granuli o gocce. Brucia con fiamma chiara e profumata e si carica negativamente per strofinamento. È interessante notare che la parola elettrone deriva dal nome greco electron, che significa ambra e allude quindi alle proprietà elettriche di questa sostanza. Esemplari di insetti estinti o ancora esistenti si trovano talvolta racchiusi in campioni d'ambra. In tempi antichi questa resina proveniva dalle coste meridionali del mar Baltico, dove tuttora è abbondantemente diffusa; è anche presente in piccole quantità in Sicilia, Romania, Siberia, Groenlandia, Myanmar, Australia e Stati Uniti. L'ambra viene usata per realizzazioni artistiche, in gioielleria e nella fabbricazione di bocchini per sigarette e pipe.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006

Ambra grigia

Sostanza grassa, grigia o nera, che viene prodotta nell'intestino dal capodoglio, apparentemente quando l'animale è malato. Fresca, l'ambra grigia ha un aroma intenso e sgradevole che in seguito all'esposizione all'aria diventa dolce e muschioso. Per queste sue caratteristiche viene utilizzata nella produzione di profumi e, vista la scarsità della risorsa, il suo valore economico è elevato. Ne esiste anche una forma sintetica, meno costosa. Solitamente si accumula e viene raccolta sulle rive dei mari orientali.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006


Amber pendants. The oval pendant is 52 by 32 mm (2 by 1.3 inches).

The English word ‘amber’ stems from the old Arabic word anbargris or ambergris and refers to an oily, perfumed substance secreted by the sperm whale. Middle English ambre > Old French ambre > Medieval Latin ambra (or ambar). It floats on water and is washed up on the beaches. Due to a confusion of terms (see: Abu Zaid al Hassan from Siraf & Sulaiman the Merchant (851), Silsilat-al-Tawarikh (travels in Asia), it became to be the name for fossil resin or tree sap which many times is also found on the beaches.

The fossil resin Amber is used for the manufacture of ornamental objects and jewellery. Although not mineralized, it is sometimes considered a gemstone. Most of the world's amber is in the range of 30–90 million years old although there is. Semi-fossilized resin or sub-fossil amber is called copal. It can hold insects or even small mammals.

The presence of insects in amber was noticed by the Romans and led them to the (correct) theory that at some point, amber had to be in a liquid state to cover the bodies of insects. Hence they gave it the expressive name of succinum or gum-stone, a name that is still in use today to describe succinic acid as well as succinite, a term given to a particular type of amber by James Dwight Dana (see below under Baltic Amber). The Greek name for amber was ëlektron and was connected to the Sun God, one of whose titles was Elector or the Awakener. The modern term electron was coined in 1891 by the Irish physicist George Stoney, using the Greek word for amber (and which was then translated as electrum) because of its electrostatic properties and whilst analyzing elementary charge for the first time. The ending -on, common for all subatomic particles, was used in analogy to the word ion.

Heating amber will soften it and eventually it will burn, which is why in Germanic languages the word for amber is a literal translation of burn-Stone (In German it is Bernstein, in Dutch it is barnsteen etc.). Heated below 200°C, amber suffers decomposition, yielding an "oil of amber", and leaving a black residue which is known as "amber colophony", or "amber pitch"; when dissolved in oil of turpentine or in linseed oil this forms "amber varnish" or "amber lac".

A mosquito and a fly in this Baltic amber necklace
are between 40 and 60 million years old

Chemistry of amber

Amber is heterogeneous in composition, but consists of several resinous bodies more or less soluble in alcohol, ether and chloroform, associated with an insoluble bituminous substance. Amber is a macromolecule by free radical polymerization of several precursors in the labdane family, communic acid, cummunol and biformene. These labdanes are diterpenes (C20H32) and trienes which means that the organic skeleton has three alkene groups available for polymerization. As amber matures over the years, more polymerization will take place as well as isomerization reactions, crosslinking and cyclization. The average composition of amber leads to the general formula C10H16O.

Amber should be distinguished from copal. Molecular polymerisation caused by pressure and heat transforms the resin firstly into copal and then over time through the evaporation of turpenes it is transformed into amber.

Baltic amber is distinguished from the various other ambers from around the world, by the presence within it of succinic acid hence why Baltic amber is otherwise known as succinite.

Amber in geology

According to scientists, the oldest amber originates from the carbon time and has an age of approximately 345 million years (Upper Carboniferous) The oldest known amber containing insects comes from the Lower Cretaceous (approx. 146 million years ago).

A bee and a Leaf inside the amber

Baltic amber or succinite (historically documented as Prussian amber) is found as irregular nodules in a marine glauconitic sand, known as blue earth, occurring in the Lower Oligocene strata of Sambia in Kaliningrad Oblast, where it is now systematically mined. It appears, however, to have been partly derived from yet earlier Tertiary deposits (Eocene); and it occurs also as a derivative mineral in later formations, such as the drift. Relics of an abundant flora occur as inclusions trapped within the amber while the resin was yet fresh, suggesting relations with the flora of Eastern Asia and the southern part of North America. Heinrich Göppert named the common amber-yielding pine of the Baltic forests Pinites succinifer, but as the wood, according to some authorities, does not seem to differ from that of the existing genus it has been also called Pinus succinifera. It is improbable, however, that the production of amber was limited to a single species; and indeed a large number of conifers belonging to different genera are represented in the amber-flora.

Amber from the Middle Cretaceous is known from Ellsworth County, Kansas. This approximately 100 million year old amber has inclusions of bacteria and amoebae. They are morphologically very close to Leptothrix, and the modern genera Pontigulasia and Nebela. Morphological stasis is considered to be confirmed.
Amber inclusions

An ant trapped in Dominican amber

Insect trapped in amber.
The amber piece is 10 mm (0.4 inches) long.

The resin contains, in addition to the beautifully preserved plant-structures, numerous remains of insects, spiders, annelids, frogs, crustaceans and other small organisms which became enveloped while the exudation was fluid. In most cases the organic structure has disappeared, leaving only a cavity, with perhaps a trace of chitin. Even hair and feathers have occasionally been represented among the enclosures. Fragments of wood frequently occur, with the tissues well-preserved by impregnation with the resin; while leaves, flowers and fruits are occasionally found in marvellous perfection. Sometimes the amber retains the form of drops and stalactites, just as it exuded from the ducts and receptacles of the injured trees. It is thought that, in addition to exuding onto the surface of the tree, amber resin also originally flowed into hollow cavities or cracks within trees, thereby leading to the development of large lumps of amber of irregular form. The abnormal development of resin has been called succinosis. Impurities are quite often present, especially when the resin dropped on to the ground, so that the material may be useless except for varnish-making, whence the impure amber is called firniss. Enclosures of pyrites may give a bluish colour to amber. The so-called black amber is only a kind of jet. Bony amber owes its cloudy opacity to minute bubbles in the interior of the resin.

Baltic amber

Baltic amber has a very wide distribution, extending over a large part of northern Europe and occurring as far east as the Urals. Baltic amber yields on dry distillation succinic acid, the proportion varying from about 3% to 8%, and being greatest in the pale opaque or bony varieties. The aromatic and irritating fumes emitted by burning amber are mainly due to this acid. Baltic amber is distinguished by its yield of succinic acid, hence the name succinite proposed by Professor James Dwight Dana, and now commonly used in scientific writings as a specific term for the Prussian amber.

Succinite has a hardness between 2 and 3, which is rather greater than that of many other fossil resins. Its specific gravity varies from 1.05 to 1.10. An effective tool for Baltic amber analysis is IR spectroscopy. It enables the distinction between Baltic and non-Baltic amber varieties because of a specific carbonyl absorption and it can also detect the relative age of an amber sample. On the other hand, it has been suggested by scientists that succinic acid is no original component of amber, but a degradation product of abietic acid. (Rottlaender, 1970)

Wood resin, the ancient source of amber.

Although amber is found along the shores of a large part of the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, the great amber-producing country is the promontory of Sambia, now part of Russia. About 90% of the world's extractable amber is located in the Kaliningrad region of Russia on the Baltic Sea. Pieces of amber torn from the seafloor are cast up by the waves, and collected at ebb-tide. Sometimes the searchers wade into the sea, furnished with nets at the end of long poles, which they drag in the sea-weed containing entangled masses of amber; or they dredge from boats in shallow water and rake up amber from between the boulders. Divers have been employed to collect amber from the deeper waters. Systematic dredging on a large scale was at one time carried on in the Curonian Lagoon by Messrs Stantien and Becker, the great amber merchants of Königsberg. At the present time extensive mining operations are conducted in quest of amber. The pit amber was formerly dug in open works, but is now also worked by underground galleries. The nodules from the blue earth have to be freed from matrix and divested of their opaque crust, which can be done in revolving barrels containing sand and water. The sea-worn amber has lost its crust, but has often acquired a dull rough surface by rolling in sand.

Since the establishment of the Amber Road, amber (which is also commonly referred to as the "Lithuanian gold") has substantially contributed to Lithuanian economy and culture. Nowadays a great variety of amber jewellery and amberware is offered to foreign tourists in most souvenir shops as distinctive to Lithuania and its cultural heritage. The Amber Museum containing unique specimen of amber has been established in Palanga, near the sea coast. Amber can also be found in Latvia.

Dominican Amber

Since the book and movie Jurassic Park, Dominican amber has become world famous. Dominican amber differentiates itself from Baltic amber by being mostly transparent, and has a higher number of fossil inclusions. This has enabled the detailed reconstruction of the ecosystem of a long-vanished tropical forest. Resin from the extinct species Hymenaea protera is the source of Dominican amber and probably of most amber found in the tropics. It is not "succinite" but "retinite". In contrast to much Baltic amber, Dominican amber found on the world market is natural amber the way it comes from the mines, and has not been enhanced or received any chemical or physical change. The age of Dominican amber is around 40 Million years. New York Times: 40-Million-Year-Old Extinct Bee found in Dominican amber

Although all Dominican amber is fluorescent up to a certain degree, the rarest Dominican Amber is Blue amber. It turns blue in natural sunlight and any other light source that has a slight component of UV (Ultra Violet). In long-wave UV light it has a very strong reflection, almost white. Only about approximately 100 kilos of this fossilized tree resin are found per year, which makes it valuable and expensive.

Dominican Amber, and especially Dominican blue amber is mined through bell pitting, which is extremely dangerous. Bell pitting (bell pit) is basically a foxhole dug with whatever tools are available. Machetes do the start, some shovels, picks and hammers may participate eventually. The pit itself goes as deep as possible or safe, sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal, but never level. It snakes into hill sides, drops away, joins up with others, goes straight up and pops out elsewhere. 'Foxhole' applies indeed: rarely are the pits large enough to stand in, and then only at the entrance. Miners crawl around on their knees using short-handled picks, shovels and machetes. There are little to no safety measures. A pillar or so may hold back the ceiling from time to time but only if the area has previously collapsed. Candles are the only source of light. Humidity inside the mines is at 100%. Since the holes are situated high on mountainsides and deep inside said mountains, the temperature is cool and bearable, but after several hours the air becomes stale. During rain the mines are forced to close. The holes fill up quickly with water, and there is little point in pumping it out again (although sometimes this is done) because the unsecured walls may crumble. The amber that is found is either directly sold as rough or raw pieces or cut and polished without any additional treatments or enhancements.

The most common use for Dominican Amber is as ornaments and jewellery, while the more valuable enclosures and colorations become priced exhibition pieces both in private and public collections. In Far East, Blue Amber has been masterfully worked into artistic carvings. Others have used Blue Amber to make jewellery that can be especially attractive for its natural fluorescence under UV lights. In the Muslim world Dominican Amber and particularly Blue Amber beads have found their way into another use as worry beads.

Other locations

Amber deposits are found around the world. Some are much older than the well known amber deposits in the Baltic countries and the Dominican Republic, other are much younger. Some Amber is considered to be up to 345,000,000 years old (Northumberland USA).

A lesser known source of amber is in the Ukraine, within a marshy forested area on the Volyhn-Polesie border. Due to the shallow depth that this amber is found at it can be extracted with the simplest of tools, and has hence led to an economy of 'amber poaching' under cover of the forest. This Ukrainian amber is much appreciated for its wide range of colours, and was used in the restoration of 'amber room' in the Empress Catherines palace in St Petersberg (see below).

Rolled pieces of amber, usually small but occasionally of very large size, may be picked up on the east coast of England, having probably been washed up from deposits under the North Sea. Cromer is the best-known locality, but it occurs also on other parts of the Norfolk coast, such as Great Yarmouth, as well as Southwold, Aldeburgh and Felixstowe in Suffolk, and as far south as Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex, whilst northwards it is not unknown in Yorkshire. On the other side of the North Sea, amber is found at various localities on the coast of the Netherlands and Denmark. On the shores of the Baltic it occurs not only on the German and Polish coast but in the south of Sweden, in Bornholm and other islands, and in southern Finland. Some of the amber districts of the Baltic and North Sea were known in prehistoric times, and led to early trade with the south of Europe through the Amber Road. Amber was carried to Olbia on the Black Sea, Massilia (today Marseille) on the Mediterranean, and Adria at the head of the Adriatic; and from these centres it was distributed over the Ancient Greek world.

Both in Switzerland and in Austria and France are amber deposits. Amber from the Swiss Alps is about 55 - 200 million years old, amber from Golling about 225 - 231 million years. The well-known Sicilian Amber (Simetit - copal) is just 10 - 20 million years old.

In Africa, copal is found in the coastal countries of East and West Africa, but especially on Madagascar. This so-called Madagascar Amber is only 1,000 - 10,000 years old and consists of the solidified resin of the amber pine. Nigeria also has amber, which is about 60 million years old.

In Asia amber can be found especially in Burma (former Burma / Myanmar) as Burmit. It is about 50 million years and the Lebanon amber 130 - 135 million years old. Amber of the Australian-oceanic area can be found in New Zealand and Borneo (Sawak amber). They are about 20 - 60, part 70 - 100 million years old.

The oldest amber are sporadically from the Devon. Amber is also found to a limited extent at several localities in the United States, as in the green-sand of New Jersey, but they have little or no economic value. Middle Cretaceous amber has also been found in Ellsworth county, Kansas. It has little value for jewellery makers, but is very valuable to biologists. Unfortunately the source of this amber is currently under a man made lake.

A fluorescent amber occurs also in the southern state of Chiapas in Mexico, and is used extensively to create eye-catching jewellery. In Central America, the Olmec civilization also was mining amber around 3000 B.C. There are legends in Mexico that mention the use of amber in adorning, consuming and using it for stress reduction as a natural remedy.

Indonesia is also a rich source of amber with large fragments being unearthed in both Java and Bali.

Amber treatments

The famous Vienna amber factories which use pale amber to manufacture pipes and other smoking tools, apply a specific procedure when working amber: it is turned on the lathe and polished with whitening and water or with rotten stone and oil, the final lustre being given by friction with flannel. During the working a significant electrostatic charge is developed.

When gradually heated in an oil-bath, amber becomes soft and flexible. Two pieces of amber may be united by smearing the surfaces with linseed oil, heating them, and then pressing them together while hot. Cloudy amber may be clarified in an oil-bath, as the oil fills the numerous pores to which the turbidity is due. Small fragments, formerly thrown away or used only for varnish, are now utilized on a large scale in the formation of "ambroid" or "pressed amber". The pieces are carefully heated with exclusion of air and then compressed into a uniform mass by intense hydraulic pressure; the softened amber being forced through holes in a metal plate. The product is extensively used for the production of cheap jewellery and articles for smoking. This pressed amber yields brilliant interference colors in polarized light. Amber has often been imitated by other resins like copal and kauri, as well as by celluloid and even glass. Baltic amber is sometimes colored artificially, but also called "true amber".

Often amber (particularly with insect inclusions) is counterfeited using a plastic resin similar in appearance. A simple test (performed on the back of the object) consists of touching the object with a heated pin and determining if the resultant odor is of wood resin. If not, the object is counterfeit, although a positive test may not be conclusive owing to a thin coat of real resin. Often counterfeits will have a too perfect pose and position of the trapped insect.

Amber art and ornament

Amber was much valued as an ornamental material in very early times. It has been found in Mycenaean tombs; it is known from lake-dwellings in Switzerland, and it occurs with Neolithic remains in Denmark, whilst in England it is found with interments of the bronze age. A remarkably fine cup turned in amber from a bronze-age barrow at Hove is now in the Brighton Museum. Beads of amber occur with Anglo-Saxon relics in the south of England; and up to a comparatively recent period the material was valued as an amulet. It is still believed to possess a certain medicinal virtue.

Unpolished amber stones in varying hues

Amber is extensively used for beads and other ornaments, and for cigar-holders and the mouth-pieces of pipes. It is regarded by the Turks as specially valuable, inasmuch as it is said to be incapable of transmitting infection as the pipe passes from mouth to mouth. The variety most valued in the East is the pale straw-colored, slightly cloudy amber. Some of the best qualities are sent to Vienna for the manufacture of smoking appliances.

The Amber Room was a collection of chamber wall panels commissioned in 1701 for the king of Prussia, then given to Tsar Peter the Great. The room was hidden in place from invading Nazi forces in 1941, who upon finding it in the Catherine Palace, disassembled it and moved it to Königsberg. What happened to the room beyond this point is unclear, but it may have been destroyed when the Russians burned the German fortification where it was stored. It is presumed lost. It was re-created in 2003.

The Amber Room was reconstructed from the Kaliningrad amber

Amber has also been used to create the "frog" part of a Violin bow. It was commissioned by Gennady Filimonov and made by the late American Master Bowmaker Keith Peck.