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Admiring the Baltic amber jewelry, we are often surprised by the unusual color, kind of transparency or the sparkles refracting the light. Where do the mysterious "scales" make amber such a luminous stone come from?

The history of extracting the natural beauty of Baltic amber is very long. Already in the 17th century, methods for clarifying amber were known by prolonged heating of nuggets in linseed oil, which filled the pores in the succinnite making it more transparent. Heating of amber wrapped in paper in a pot with hot sand was also popular [1]. In the late of the 20th century, amber workers clarified succinite in their own homes in ... kitchen owens! Amber nuggets were put into a owen and then filled with sand or salt for even heating. Currently, nuggets are clarified in an autoclave at elevated temperature and pressure. In this process transparent, sometimes even colorless pieces of amber are obtained [2]. Slowly cooling the nuggets is key to prevent them from cracking [3].

However, when we cool the amber rapidly, the so-called "scales", otherwise known as "sparkles." Inside the lumps of amber, which cools down relatively quickly, micro-cracks form. Then the interior of amber takes on a twinkling character, attracting curious eyes. However, the fact that fish scales are sunk in the middle of such a stone is not true. The coincidence of names is completely random :).

Stones modified in this way have been produced since the 1980s, which consist of two parts - the so-called doublets. The upper part is lemon clear amber, often from the "Scales" and underneath - a layer of black organic paint that makes amber appear greenish [5]. A similar effect is obtained by flame treatment of the back surface of amber, which darkens being an excellent background for scales in transparent amber. With this method, the visual effect is much more interesting than when using organic paint due to the change in the texture of the bottom layer of succinite and its unexpected color, which can be black, brown or dark gray.

Thanks to minor modifications, we can enjoy the wide spectrum of colors of Baltic amber - lemon, honey, cognac, greenish, white or red amber colors no longer surprise anyone.


[1] Popiołek, J., 2001. Dawni autorzy o klarowaniu, imitacjach i fałszowaniu bursztynu. Polski Jubiler, Issue 1 (12), pp. 28-29.
[2] Wagner-Wysiecka, E., 2018. Mid-infrared spectroscopy for characterization of Baltic amber (succinite). Spectrochimica Acta Part A Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy, Issue 196.
[3] Gierłowska, G., 2003. Przewodnik po imitacjach bursztynu. Gdańsk: Bursztynowa Hossa.
[4] Kosmowska-Ceranowicz, B., 2012. Bursztyn w Polsce i na świecie. wydanie pierwsze red. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego.
[5] Kosior, M., 2018. Zakaz wystawiania bursztynu malowanego na targach Amberif. Gems&Jewelry, Issue VIII, pp. 66-67.

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The names of precious and semi-precious stones have different origins, often they result from the characteristics features of a given stone. Terminological complexities are also associated with our national treasure - Baltic amber.

The name succinite comes from the Latin word succinum meaning juice [1]. The first mention of this name appeared in the work of Pliny the Elder written in the first century BC. "Natural History." "Our ancestors also believed that amber is a juice (from Latin sucus) of wood, calling it succinum for this reason" [2]. In ancient Greece, amber was called an electron - a "stone that attracts", as well as a stone "from the sun". The term jantar has Finno-Ugric roots and is similar to the Lithuanian gintaras (amulet). The Phoenicians, ancient inhabitants of the eastern-southern part of the Mediterranean coast, called succinite jainitar, which means sea resin[3].

The Polish name "bursztyn" comes from the German word Bernstein (which meant a burning stone), because after being set on fire it burns with a bright flame, intensely kicking and emitting a pleasant resinous smell [3]. Depending on the place of extraction, succinite is commonly called: Baltic amber (Poland, Russia, Lithuania), Saxon amber or Bitterfeld amber (Bitterfeld, Germany) as well as Ukrainian amber [1]. All the resins mentioned above have a common genesis, often combined with one parent tree, properties and chemistry. These factors depend on environmental conditions during formation, sedimentation, deposition, diagenesis and transport of resin lumps. When mining the main mineral in succinite mines, the accompanying minerals: gedanite, glessite, gedano-succinite are found. these resins differ from succinite by the features listed above [1].

Complexity of terminology is also associated with the word "amber". In the gemological nomenclature, it has been accepted that the name is reserved for succinite, because it is associated with the origin of amber, the area of occurrence (the Baltic Sea basin) and chemistry. Other fossil resins that have no common past or chemical composition with succinite are also incorrectly called amber on the gemstone market, e.g. fossil resin from Borneo, Mexico or the Dominican Republic. It is often used to even identify subfossil resins, e.g. African amber, which is in fact a copal from Tanzania or Congo [4].

In summary - each of the above names is correct. We can use the terms bursztyn, jantar, amber or succinite interchangeably. The only thing to be avoided is to call "amber" resins from outside the Baltic Sea region.

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It is well known that Baltic amber comes in a wide range of colors. Milky, yellow, orange, cognac or greenish colors are not a surprise. However, blue is still controversial.

Ambiguous colors, light figures and flickering effects of stones arouse admiration, sometimes in combination with suspicions. Where does this rainbow color opal come from? Why do labradorites and moonstones hypnotize with a mysterious glow? Can natural resins have others colors than brown? Blue amber also raises curiosity and considerable doubts.

The fossil resin from the Dominican Republic, mined in mountain mines located near Santiago, generally has a brownish color. However, a small part of the lumps in sunlight surprises with the mysterious blue iridescence. This is due to the reflection of sunlight from the surface of the stone, in which ring hydrocarbons split a beam of light, resulting in a blue color effect (photo No. 1). The color of the resin from the Dominican Republic is due to light effects, it is not the right color. In artificial light, solids with a blue iridescent shade are no different from other specimens of fossil resin, this effect is visible only in sunlight. This resin comes from the extinct species of the Hymenaea protera tree, which was found only in tropical areas of Central America. This effect occurs not only in lumps from the Dominican Republic, although rare, but also found in fossil resin from Mexico.

When it comes to Baltic amber - bluish color is very rare in nature. German geologist John Schlee discovered that a blue hue of amber arises when dark particles of pyrite (iron sulfide FeS2) are dispersed in milky white amber nuggets. This mineral is formed in the anoxic zones of deep parts of the seas and oceans. But where did the pyrite come from in amber? Well, the solution with sulfur and iron ions got into the micro-cracks of amber, lying on the bottom of the sea, where it crystallized in the form of metallic pyrite.

In the case of scattered pyrite in a fine crystalline form in a milky lump - we see a gray-blue color (photo No. 2). Pyrite may also appear in thick-crystalline form in the form of clearly visible veins crystallized in the amber voids (photo No. 3). Baltic amber of this color is extremely rare and very valuable. Sometimes the blue color of Baltic amber results from the modification - covering the amber with blue translucent paint (photo No. 4). Sale of such modified ambers at the Amberif fair organized by the Gdańsk International Fair S.A. was banned in 2018.

To sum up: the blue color of the resin may be the result of natural light effects (as in the case of the Dominican), inclusions (pyrite in amber) or be the result of modification processes.

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The word ‘copal’ comes from the copalli, which in Nahuatl means 'incense'. This fragrant stone has fascinated people since its dawn with its resinous smell and unusual appearance. Nowadays, it is often compared with Baltic amber because of its similar appearance, despite its different properties.

Natural resins are divided by age: older fossil resins (e.g. Baltic amber) and younger called subfossil resins (e.g. Colombian copal). Copals are between 10,000 and 1 million years old, and according to some researchers up to 5 million years [1].

The exact name of the copal usually comes from the place of extraction or from the name of its tree, which they are come from. The most popular copal is resin from Colombia, which is characterized by a yellow-greenish color and high transparency. Its native tree are tropical deciduous trees Leguminosae (similar in appearance to modern acacia).

Resin from Colombia is collected from the ground surface or extracted at small depths. The largest deposits are located in the Andes in the departments of Boyaca and Santander.

Colombian copal is successfully used in jewelry and sculpture. However, due to its softness, it undergoes a thermal process in an autoclave to increase its hardness (and thus enable polishing). Varnishing of the resin surface is also encountered to increase its resistance to mechanical damage and to give it a better gloss [3].

Baltic amber sometimes is replaced by a copal from Colombia, there is nothing wrong with it until the person concerned is notified about it. The Colombian copal has the unfair opinion of being an imitation of amber, although it is a precious and unique stone in itself. Both resins are of natural origin and, when heated, emit a beautiful resinous smell.

What distinguishes Colombian copal and Baltic Amber?

Age – the copal is up to 5 million years old, and Baltic amber is around 40 million;

Native tree – resin from Colombia comes from deciduous trees and Baltic amber from conifers trees;

Plasticizing and melting temperature – much lower in the case of Colombian copal;

Hardness – the "Baltic" is much harder, it does not need autoclaving to be used in jewelry;

Reaction to acetone – the copal is covering with a sticky layer, Baltic amber does not react;

Succinic acid – 0-3% in copal, 3-8% in Baltic amber.

In our Amber Laboratory, we use infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) to distinguish different resins from each other so that the buyer can be certain of what he is purchasing.


[1] Kosmowska-Ceranowicz, B., 2012. Amber in Poland and in the world. first edition edited by Warsaw: University of Warsaw Publishing House.

[2] Kosmowska-Ceranowicz, B., 2001a. Amber and other fossil resins of the world. Artificial copals and resins - imitation or forgery of amber. Polish Jeweler, Issue 1 (12), pp. 24-27.

[3] Kosmowska-Ceranowicz, B., 2013. Amber and its imitations. Warsaw: Sadyba Publishing House.

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