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Baltic amber beads.  Photo by Lauras at http://www.etsy.com/shop/Gumstone

It is always a pleasure to learn more about gemstones, even the ones considered common, and amber is a scientist’s and historian’s dream.  Amber is one of the few organic gemstones (those made from living organisms or their products), and with pearl and ammolite covered in weeks’ past, that leaves just coral and jet.  Amber had its own trade routes as early as 3000 BCE, and like pearls, was cherished in both hemispheres, but it was more utilitarian.

The vast majority of the world’s amber comes from Northern Europe and is termed Baltic amber.  Over time lumps of tree resin became trapped under pressure and heat inside layers of sediment, which were then picked up by glaciers that swept across the continent.  It is still possible to walk along Scandinavian beaches and find 40-60 million year-old amber that arose from the sea floor.  The oldest ambers are around 320 million years old.  Aside from the traditional golden color, amber can be creamy white, all shades of yellow to brown, and almost black.  There are also highly sought-after red, green, and blue ambers.

People once thought amber was magical because of its ability to draw dust to its surface through static.  Though its Grecian name “elektron” meant “formed from the sun”, the word was given to electricity in the 1600’s.  Amber is also a natural plastic, and several hundred prehistoric species have been identified through the study of the little time capsules.  Amber gives off a pleasing resinous odor when heated, harkening back to its origin in trees, and across the ancient world it was an ingredient in perfume.  Amber is a bit of a cure-all for pain and disease in folk medicine, and one common use is to string the beads in a teething bracelet for infants.  In Lithuania, where amber is common, it was burned as incense to drive away evil spirits, help souls reach the afterlife, bless marriages and newborns, and protect its wearer from harm and disease.