Amber jewelry is beautiful, but to fully understand its true beauty, it’s helpful to know a bit about its history and origin.
Amber, also known as succinite, is the fossilized resin of trees. Much of it comes from the Baltic region, where it washes up onto the beaches and can be easily collected. Amber has many qualities that make it useful in many ways, and people, both ancient and modern, have been intrigued by it for centuries. Let’s take a closer look at the history of amber and what makes it so special!
Origins of Amber
Amber is fossilized tree resin that has hardened over time. The process takes over 100 million years to occur, making it an amazing time-capsule of ancient debris and small creatures that got caught in the resin before it set. Amber has been used in jewelry and other decorations since the stone age, approximately 13,000 years ago. It has also been used in folk medicine for thousands of years, into current day.
Baltic amber is found in northern Europe. It was commonly traded and used by cultures throughout the Baltic and ancient Mediterranean areas. As this fossilized tree resin washed up onto the shores, it was collected and then cut, carved, and polished into pieces of fine jewelry and ornaments.
There are many myths and legends that come with the origin of Amber jewelry. Some examples include amber being solidified rays of the sun or being crystalized tears of the Roman goddess Clymene and her daughters. While these may just be myths, in the 1st century, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder attempted to classify the stone and stated the following:
- It is a relatively common substance, which is frequently traded.
- It originally comes from pine trees, which is obvious because it smells of pine when it is burnt.
- It starts in a liquid state, because insects are sometimes trapped inside the larger pieces.
- The hardening is not due to fossilization, but rather a process somehow performed by the sea.
Although some of these statements have been proven false, this was an early step towards understanding amber in a more scientific way.
Properties of Amber
Amber is a soft material and is ideal for being cut and carved into beads and other forms for jewelry and decoration. Ancient jewelers used tools like saws, files, and drills to create the shapes and engraved the designs they wanted. The softness of the material posed no problem for them, as they were already skilled at working with other soft materials such as garnet.
Our ancestors quickly noticed that when amber is rubbed, it’s capable of forming static electricity. It produces a negative charge that gives it the ability to attract light objects, such as wheat chaff or dried grasses. This property gave amber yet another quality that added to its allure and mystery for ancient peoples.
Amber also has a unique advantage in that it can be polished by using abrasives to produce a gleam. A disadvantage with this method, however, is that it's common for the material to degrade. It will fade over time by being exposed to air and can become more opaque. Many ancient pieces do not look as impressive today as they must have looked when they were first made.
Why was Jewelry Made from Amber?
Amber has long been seen to have a mystical property with the capability of protecting the one who wore it. The use for this was especially common in ancient Egypt and Greece. To give a protective object even more power, it was typically made out of amber. It was not only seen as property to ward off misfortune, it was also thought to have healing powers. In some Roman cemeteries, children were often buried wearing amber beads.
The healing powers were believed to be specifically connected to the tonsils, mouth, and throat, as well as some mental disorders and bladder problems. There were times when amber was even ground up and mixed with rose oil and honey to treat common ear and eye infections.
While this may seem far-fetched to some, there may be some truth in amber’s healing properties. Amber is a natural substance that contains succinic acid, which was used in medicine prior to the use of antibiotics. The ancient beliefs in its healing powers may not be quite as fanciful as some may think.
History of Amber
Artifacts made from amber have been found in Stone Age and Bronze Age sites, and testing on it has shown that it largely came from the Baltic area. Amber beads found on a Bronze Age shipwreck also indicate the trade of amber in this time period.
Since it was traded and rare in the Near East, amber was largely reserved for and became a symbol of royal power and status in this area. Priests also wore amber as a mark of distinction. Amber was an even rarer find in ancient Egypt, but amber beaded jewelry and rings have been found in several of the tombs there.
Amber goods are a common feature of ancient Greek art, but by the Classical Period, the material seems to have gone out of fashion. The Romans later ensured that amber made a comeback across the Mediterranean, making it prized and fashionable again by importing it via the rivers of Germania. Largely worn by Roman women, its protective qualities were not forgotten. Gladiators also made sure to have pieces attached to their fighting nets!
In the Medieval period, the Armenians became the new champions of amber, and helped ensure that its far-reaching trade and incorporation into fine decorative pieces continued into modern times.
Throughout the decades, amber has ebbed and flowed in its popularity around the world. Without a doubt, amber has some interesting properties and makes for some beautiful jewelry and decorative pieces, making it a popular choice for jewelry even now!