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Amber

fossilized pine resin

The pine trees that produced the resins from which amber formed grew millions of years ago. These resins were gummy materials mixed with oils in the trees. When the oils became oxidized, hard resins were left. The pine trees were eventually buried under ground or under water, and the resins slowly changed into irregularly shaped lumps of amber. These lumps often contain insects or other small animals, feathers, plant materials, etc. that were trapped as the resins flowed from the trees, and some even contain air bubbles. Known as inclusions, these "imperfections" often increase the value of a piece of amber, depending on the rarity and completeness of the inclusion.

piece of amber with numerous inclusions

Amber can range in color from dark brown to a light almost clear lemon yellow. It is very soft, between 2-1/2 and 3 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, and can be scratched easily. Amber also has a low specific gravity, meaning it can float on salt water. Because it is not crystalline, amber is not classified as a true mineral.

The largest supply of amber lies in the Baltic Sea region, and it is not uncommon for lumps of amber to be washed up on the shores around that sea. Amber also frequently washes up on other European beaches, and can also be gathered directly out of the sea with nets. Most "commercial" amber, however, is mined from a claylike soil called blue earth, the largest deposits of which are found in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Wyoming, Russia, Romania, and Burma.

The ancient Greeks called amber elektron, which may have come from a Phoenician word for the sun. When rubbed with cloth, amber becomes electrically charged and attracts bit of straw, which is why elektron was transformed into the word electricity.


The Mohs Hardness Scale

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This page was last updated on 01/13/2015.

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