Suitcase and World: Amber.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Many years ago when my parents were traveling through Europe, my mom brought back an amber brooch for me. It's not a fancy piece of jewelry but it's one of my favorites. On my recent trip to Mexico, I had the opportunity to visit a small amber museum located in the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, located in the state of Chiapas. It was a small museum but they had some wonderful art pieces there as well as on piece that had a very ancient scorpion encased inside. In 2009, on my trip to Mongolia, I learned about the healing properties of amber when I encountered a young girl wearing a large amber necklace. On this trip, I will be traveling to the part of the world that holds the reputation for having the largest and richest amber deposits - the Baltic Coast.

Amber derives its name from the Middle English word ‘ambre’, from the Medieval Latin word ‘ambra’, and from the Arabic word ‘anbar ambergris’.

Amber is the fossilized resin from ancient forests. As the aromatic resin dripped from and oozed down the trees, it ended up trapping debris such as seeds, leaves, feathers and insects. Over the centuries, the fallen resin got buried and fossilized.  As might be expected, the more unique the type of fossils found in amber, the rarer the piece and therefore, the higher its value.

The majority of amber that is found today in the Baltics is approximately 30-90 million years old!

The level of succinic acid contained in the amber is what determines its quality. Amber from the Baltic Sea region contains the highest level of succinic acid, 99.8%, and therefore is considered to be the highest quality amber you can find.

In the Baltics, amber can be found in a spectrum of colors: white, yellow, brown, black, red, green and blue. The most common colors are honey and milky yellow. A small percentage of amber is bone white and the rarest has a green and blue tone.

Although the most widespread use of amber is in jewellery, it is also used for medicinal purposes; healing both internal and external disorders. Amber's curative properties are thought to be connected with its content of succinic acid, which is a unique biostimulant. The chemical composition of succinite is the reason why a large proportion of Baltic amber is chemically processed for making medicines.  A lesser known fact is that the optical properties of amber were used during the Middle Ages to make eyeglasses from and even today, there are manufacturers of optical equipment using amber to improve the quality of lenses.

The beautiful brooch that my mother gave me.

Most of the amber found in the Baltics washes up on the shores of what is referred to as the Amber Coast which stretches from Ventspils, Latvia and runs down the Curonian Spit to Kaliningrad.  Amber is extracted by either fishing for it - literally with nets scooping ground up from the ocean floor or mined from quarries.  It will be interesting to learn more about amber when we get to the Baltics.

We'll be driving along stretches of the Amber Coast and I'm sure there will be plenty of spots along the way to see amber - expecting a lot of jewelry.   I'm not so much interested in jewelry so I'll be on the lookout for other pieces. Challenge will be to tell the real amber from the plastic imitations.  Supposedly, real amber will float in salt water and when it burns (i.e., pierced with a hot needle), it smells of the resin.  Hmmmm.....I can't see any vendor letting me stick a hot needle into their piece so may I will have to carry a bottle of sea water with me.... :-)