All About Amber

By: Dara Vandor

Lot 304 – Graduated Amber Bead Necklace. (27mm x 32mm to 45mm x 56mm). Dimensions: length 35.0 in — 88.9 cm Estimate: $400—600 CAD.

Amber has fascinated humanity for millennia. Made from a natural polymer formed from tree resin which over time has hardened, amber has been found around the world. The oldest example – which was recovered from an Illinois coal seam – has been dated to about 320 million years ago.

How is amber created?

Plants can produce several varieties of liquids including latex, gum, sap, and wax, depending on the specimen. Others, typically conifers, produce resin, which is insoluble in water and hardens when exposed to air. Some sources will refer to amber as being formed of tree sap, which is incorrect, as it differs from resin. The more fluid sap provides nutrients and water within a tree, while the stickier resin acts as a protective agent, sealing the boundaries of the tree when it gets damaged, and defending the organism against pathogens and pests. It is this glue-like substance that is responsible for making amber, as its strong adhesive properties are able to withstand the elements during the ageing process.

Over an extended period, resin begins to polymerize, which forms the glassy, durable substance we know as amber. During the transformation, flora and fauna may get stuck in the resin. Perfectly preserved for millenia, these specimens make amber an important ecological and evolutionary record for scientists.

Where is amber found?

While examples have been found around the globe, some regions boast more abundant deposits. The Baltic region currently accounts for much of the world’s amber, with countries like  Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Russia leading the way. These countries played host to ancient forests, abundant in the woody trees which produced the right sort of resin needed to make amber. Carried by rivers from the forest to the ocean, amber often washes ashore on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Specimens from this region are typically between 34 million and 38 million years old.

Other major sources of amber are the Dominican Republic, with specimens ranging from 15 and 20 million years old and Myanmar, with examples typically about 99 million years old. Canada, specifically an area around Grassy Lake in Alberta, also yields excellent specimens of amber, ranging from 78 million and 79 million years old. Each region’s amber is unique, with its own range of colours and specimens trapped within, prized by scientists and aesthetes alike.

Amber jewellery

Amber was one of the earliest materials in human history that was used to make jewellery. Examples date as far back as 8,000 BCE, with beads, amulets and pendants having been found at Stone Age burial sites. Amber’s popularity in ancient cultures stems not only from its natural beauty but from the relative ease of carving and polishing it – the resinous material being softer than a true gemstone.

From the Ancient Egyptians to the Vikings, amber was prized for its radiant, sunny hues and symbolic link to the natural world. Greco-Roman cultures particularly prized the material. Amber beads are mentioned as a lavish gift in Homer’s Odyssey, and Ovid wrote that amber was crystallised tears. Others believed that amber was made from the sun’s rays, and indeed, the Greek word for amber, “electrum” comes from the word “elector,” or “sun.” Elegant mythologies aside, the Ancient Greeks weren’t entirely in the dark, with Aristotle identifying amber as hardened resin by the 3rd century BC.

Amber was traded extensively, with seafaring merchants ensuring that it travelled far and wide. Highly prized, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History that “so highly valued is this as an object of luxury, that a very diminutive human effigy, made of amber, has been known to sell at a higher price than living men even, in stout and vigorous health.”

Across cultures, amber was seen as possessing various medicinal and mystical properties. It was said to have healing energies and protective qualities, and was often incorporated into protective jewellery, amulets, and religious artefacts. Baltic folklore believed it to represent prosperity, protection, and eternal youth, and it remains an important cultural product in the region to this day.

Waddington’s is pleased to include several excellent examples of amber jewellery in our Estate Jewellery auction, available for bidding through June 6, 2024.

About the auction:

Held online through June 6, our Estate Jewellery auction consists primarily of gold examples of necklaces, rings, earrings, brooches, chains and bracelets from the 19th and 20th centuries. The auction features numerous diamond solitaire rings including a fine 3.00 carat pear cut fancy yellow diamond cocktail ring and a broad selection of amber beads and jewellery.

Please contact us for more information.

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On view at our Toronto location, 275 King Street East, Second Floor:
Sunday, June 02 from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm
Monday, June 03 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Tuesday, June 04 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

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