Baltic Amber: What Is It & How Is It Formed?

What Is Amber, And How Is It Formed?

A common misconception is that amber is made of tree sap, which isn’t the case. Where tree sap is a fluid that circulates throughout a plant or tree’s vascular system, resin is a semi-solid substance secreted by the tree itself. It’s this resin that fossilises over the course of millions of years, and forms the substance we refer to as amber today. Since the 1850’s, it was thought that this amber was formed by resin produced by Pinites Succinifera, but more recent research has shown that this amber-forming resin actually originates from several species of tree.

Chances are, you’ve come across amber in your day-to-day life. Perhaps without even knowing it. As far back as the Neolithic times, amber has been used for a multitude of purposes. From its inclusion in perfumes and healing agents of the time, through to more moderns uses that celebrate its natural form within adults and kids amber jewellery including necklaces, bangles, bracelets and anklets. 

Elsewhere, and the most common forms of yellowish-brown amber - usually soft and sticky - are known to contain a variety of animal and plant matter. This is what’s known as ‘Inclusions’ in the jewellery world, where insects and even small vertebrates are captured and preserved within the amber itself. This was most famously seen on the big screen in feature films like Jurassic Park.

What Is Baltic Amber?

Baltic amber derives its name from the location that it’s found - the Baltic Sea - and is a fossil of resin that sets itself apart from the various other types of amber with its natural inclusion of a substance known as Succinic Acid, which historically has been used as a remedy to treat teething babies.

Baltic amber - also referred to as Succinite - is the world’s most common form of amber, dating back some 44 million years (that’s as far back as the Eocene Epoch) where the forests along the Baltic Sea created an estimated 100,000 tons of amber, which has since settled along the shore of the Baltic Sea. 

Today, more than 90% of the world’s amber comes from the Baltic region. More specifically, the region known as Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia, which is found on the coast of the Baltic Sea. It’s here that miners extracted some 250 tonnes of Baltic amber in 2014, and a staggering 400 tonnes in 2015. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that the Baltic region is home to the largest known deposit of amber in the world. 

As Baltic Amber is a naturally occurring substance, it can vary dramatically in shape, size and uniformity, and is found in a dizzying array of colours. Natural imperfections are common in Baltic amber: look closely and you'll see bubbles, plant debris, cracks, fissures as well as insect parts. In fact, Baltic amber boasts the most species-rich fossil insect fauna discovered to date. 

Did You Know? Even though Baltic amber isn’t a mineral, it’s often classified as a gemstone.

How Is Baltic Amber Gathered? 

Baltic amber has been gathered in various ways throughout the ages. In ancient times, pieces of amber were caught using nets cast from boats. This method is known as the ‘scoop’. Later, the ‘abruption method’ was adopted, and later came to replace the ‘scoop’. Through this method, amber is collected with a sharp hook from the shallow water. Amber also used to be collected from small pits and shoal wells that lined the shore during the 16th century.

The gathering of amber on an industrial scale only began in the middle of the last century, where amber was collected from pits and levels in the region of Palmnicken town in Kaliningrad. This large-scale gathering of amber started during the middle of the last century. The amber was collected from the region of Palmnicken town in Kaliningrad, where in 1876 a massive 45Kg cache of amber was found gathered beneath a massive boulder.

This process of gathering from underground banks came to an end in 1922, as the operation became too difficult and financially unviable. In 1912, just a few years before this method was scrapped, amber started to be gathered from open sand pits in the northern part of Palmicken town. A method that proved successful - and popular - enough to supersede other gathering methods of the time. 

Amber also used to be collected from ground known as ‘blue ground’. Powerful excavators were used to gather the amber in the seashore regions, marching through the sand pits and the ‘blue ground’ and then transferred to a conversion factory via conveyor. Before conveyors, hidro-transportation systems were used to transport the amber, though this process often resulted in a significant loss of amber. 

Nowadays, seashore deposits of amber are processed using dredgers and hidro-monitors. The sediment is turned into a pulp by the monitor, which is then dispersed into the sea with the help of the dredger. Following this, powerful excavators are then used to scoop and gather the amber. 

The Historic Trading Routes Of Amber

Amber is well known and is followed by precious stone, gem and jewellery enthusiasts the world over. As far back as prehistoric times, people have been attracted - and even addicted - to its captivating scents and variety of colours. 

The gathering of amber predates even the Stone Are or the Neolithic period, where it was carried out on a massive scale. Though many tend to doubt the credibility of this longevity, clear traces of maber which prove as much have been found in archeological sites in Pomorskie, which dates back well beyond 5 million years ago.

It’s this that’s considered to be the very beginning - or the start - of what today is referred to as ‘the amber route’. It’s worth mentioning that this was not a single road. In fact, it was a general direction of trade between Southern Europe and local markets.

It was during the time period of the Roman Equestrian - namely Julianus - where people set off from Rome in search of the Amber by the great Baltic Sea. However, at the time, even before the migration period the amber culture had started to flourish, before it quickly spread north where it further established the Roman culture. This craze for amber wasn’t just limited to the Baltic Coast, either, as it became one of the most in-demand items of its time among the Phoenicians, Greeks, Persians and Romans too. 

At the end of the day, it’s an undeniable fact that amber is, was, and always will be highly popular and desired by people the world over. As it has been for many centuries. And will be for many centuries more.  

Did you know? This route wasn’t a contemporary route, as some may call it. It was actually a union of a number of roads on which amber was transported from the Baltic Sea region to the Mediterranean civilisations.

What Is Succinic Acid?

Baltic Amber contains an estimated 4-8% Succinic acid, which is some of the highest levels of Succinic acid of any material on earth. So what is this odd sounding substance? And what does it do? 

Succinic acid is an alkalizing acid, similar in many ways to lemon juice. It’s a substance that’s found naturally within our bodies, where it plays a vital role in the all-important Krebs cycle, and has historically been used across Europe as a general cure-all and antibiotic for hundreds - if not thousands - of years. Though nowadays you’re more likely to find it used as a naturally occuring or additive ingredient in our food (#363) as well as within numerous beverages including beer and wine, where it’s used as a sweetener. 

Frequently Asked Amber Questions

What Types Of Amber Are There?

Baltic amber may be the most common form of amber, but there are many other types found all over the world, each with their own unique size, colour, and properties.  

How Long Has Baltic Amber Been Around For?

Amber varies in ages, though most amber today is estimated to be between 30 to 90 million years old.

What Are The Colours Of Amber?

Baltic Amber occurs naturally in a variety of colours. The most common of these is the now ubiquitous honey-coloured, though it’s also found in numerous shades of brown, black, red, green, blue and white, which is caused by hundreds of thousands of microscopic gas bubbles trapped within the amber. 

The clear and translucent ambers results from flowing and dripping resin, while the black and dirty brown colours are caused by a mix of resin, soil and plant fragments. Some of the rarest ambers have a tone of green or blue caused by gas or inclusions. 

How Should I Clean & Care For My Amber?

Amber is soft and brittle, so it’s important to handle with care at all times, and avoid using harsh or abrasive cleaning chemicals and keep it out of contact with perfumes, hairsprays or soaps including shampoos and conditioners. Other tips include:

Avoid storing amber with other jewellery as it can rub against other pieces - especially metals - which can scratch and mark the soft amber. 

Remove your jewellery when bathing or applying sunscreen.

Clean your amber with a soft, flannel cloth or an unused toothbrush dampened with clean, lukewarm water.

Dry with a clean tissue or towel. 

How Long Should My Amber Last?

Baltic amber, in theory, could last forever if cared for effectively. However, it is also extremely old and brittle, so over time the surface of the beads tend to get coated with soap scum and other substances and may even break. 

By effectively caring for and regularly cleaning your Baltic amber, you’ll ensure it lasts for years and maintains its captivating appearance. 

How Do I Tell If My Baltic Amber Is Real? 

How do you look for fake amber? There are a few recommended types of tests that you can do to check whether your Baltic amber is real. These include: 

Visual Inspection 
The Ultraviolet Light Test 
The Scratch Test