The Art Medium Amber

Amber, sometimes termed resinite, is tree resin that has fossilized. It has been a popular material regarded for its beauty since the Neolithic era. It is best known by its amber gold color which is defined by shades of yellow, orange, and brown; however, amber is also found, though more rarely, in other shades like red (sometimes called cherry amber), green, and blue. Depending on its chemical composition, amber is divided into five classes. Depending on its class, amber may be used for jewelry, as a perfume ingredient, and even as an ingredient in folk remedies.

Amber gets its name from the term ambergris which is a similarly sticky substance taken from Sperm whales and historically prized as an ingredient for perfumes. Its earliest mention dates to Theophrastus of the fourth century B.C. Later scholars and early naturalists noted that amber was sometimes found with inclusions—bits of natural debris as well as insects like spiders or mosquitoes. This allowed them to discover the process by which the liquid resin transformed into a hardened substance. The transformation is dependent upon heat and pressure. One of the oldest amber necklaces found dates back sixty million years and contains a mosquito and a fly encapsulated in its form.

Perhaps the world’s most famous amber hails from the Baltic Sea where it has been traded for more than two thousand years. In some areas amber was burned to create amber varnish for furniture or other wooden items. The Baltic region is still a major source of amber, but the substance can be found throughout the globe. Before amber can be used, particularly for artistic purposes, it must be treated. Factories such as the famed amber factories of Vienna use a variety of techniques to achieve its telltale luster.

Historically and today amber is best known as an artistic medium. It is most popularly used to create jewelry or decorative ornaments. It is often the focal point of jewels due to its striking appearance. Beads may be made from amber, but very good pieces may serve as the focal point of earrings, rings, and necklaces. One of the most famous examples of artistically rendered amber was the Amber Room of St. Petersburg’s Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo. The room was completely adorned with panels of golden amber and was described as the eighth wonder of the world. The room was looted during WWII and its whereabouts remain lost today.

While amber jewelry and other works created with amber are collected in museums throughout the world, the Palanga Amber Museum in Palanga, Lithuania is devoted to collecting amber artwork and owns more than twenty-eight thousand pieces. Amber works of art can be purchased throughout the world, but warnings exist about the growing use of counterfeit amber which is comprised of plastic resin. It is essential to make purchases from reputable sellers or artisans in order to obtain true amber.