Baltic amber

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Kathy Feick

Amber is not a mineral, since it has an organic origin and has no internal arrangement of atoms. The composition of amber may vary greatly depending on the botanical source, though all specimens are believed to be fossilized tree resin. Resin is a substance that flows beneath the bark of a tree to protect it from insect or storm damage. For unknown reasons, the trees that produced ultimately produced the amber had an overproduction of resin. This may have been nature’s method of healing natural injuries caused by storms, lighting, pests and diseases, or perhaps it was caused by a sudden climate change. Either way, the resin is believed to have dropped to the forest floor, become embedded into the local sediments, and be compressed by overlying deposits. Over millions of years, a chemical substance known as terpenes, which is found naturally in the resin, breaks down and escapes from the resin, forming amber. All of this took place approximately 50 million years ago during the Eocene epoch.

pieces of orange amber

Baltic Amber. Unknown Locality. University of Waterloo Earth Sciences Museum Collection.

Baltic amber, or succinite, contains 3-8% succinic acid, which is believed to form from micro-organism-induced fermentation of the cellulose contained in the acid. It is found in the Baltic region of northern Europe and this variety of amber accounts for approximately 80%-90% of the world’s supply. At one time, the Baltic forest covered a great deal of the area around the Baltic Sea and the Scandinavian Peninsula.

Baltic Amber has been found in:

  • Poland
  • Germany
  • Lithuania
  • Latvia
  • Estonia
  • Denmark
  • Sweden
  • Holland
  • Belorussia
  • United Kingdom

Amber sometimes contains fossilized matter which has been frozen in time. Amber pieces have been found to contain strands of DNA with fossilized insect and plant materials suspended inside. Over 200 plant species have been identified through amber analysis.

Amber has been known for a very long time. The actual documented history of the discovery of amber begins in 1854, in Juodkrante, a coastal town, where a shipping channel was being built. When word got out about the amber, a prominent investor from Klaipeda took interest in the discovery and founded a company called “Stantien and Becker”. In 1860, specialized ships with custom machinery began mining for the amber. The next 30 years yielded 75,000 kg in excellent raw amber each year. The company grew to more than 500 employees.

Amber can be found in a number of different colours. It is believed that different types of trees, or different impurities in the resin produced the different colours of amber. Amber can be varying shades of yellow, orange, red, white, brown, green, bluish, or “black”. Rainbow colours within the amber are caused by the light interference of air bubbles or strain created during an insect’s death struggle. Natural amber, regardless of the colour, may darken to a mellow brown after long exposure to the air.

Differences between real and fake amber:

  1. When heated, amber burns like incense and releases a sweet and piny fragrance, while fake amber has a more plastic-like smell
  2. Genuine Baltic amber will float in salt water. At home, you can mix one part salt water and two parts water to produce salt water. (plastics may float too)
  3. Amber is a poor conductor of heat, because of this it always feels warm to the touch.
  4. If it is not too humid out, try rubbing amber on your clothing or hair and then see if it will attract tiny flakes of paper. Real amber will attract the paper.