Baltic Amber and Its Art
during the Twentieth Century

by
Erin L. Grosstephan

www.emporia.edu/earthsci/amber/
go340/students/grosstephan

The Reconstructed Amber Room.
Photo by J. and M. Melhorn, 12/2002.


This final project was created for a gemstones and gemology course in the 2009 spring semester at Emporia State University. The assignment was to summarize our knowledge regarding a gemstone topic and present it in a format that would be placed online. My topic is on the organic gem amber, and I focus on its relevance in the 20th century.

Table of Contents

Introduction Formation
Basic Information Physical Properties
The Amber Room Inclusions
Conclusions References and Links


Introduction

The mystery of amber has enthralled people for millennia. It does not fit the normal view of a gem because it is not a mineral but rather, created from organic matter. Amber is found throughout the world and has been used for many different purposes in a variety of cultures throughout history. Its ability to preserve prehistoric flora and fauna has endeared it to biologists and botanists alike. Evolutionists have studied these inclusions in amber for evidence of both convergent and divergent evolution of plants and organisms. Yet, amberís most visible use throughout history has been in art and adornment. It is relatively easy to carve, comes in a wide variety of colors, and has warmth about it that gives each piece a feeling of life and history. Across the globe, artists have used the medium of amber for secular and religious works. Amber has a feeling of mysticism that has sparked the imagination and interest of the world.


Basic Information

Amber, also known as succinite, is made up of a mixture of resins from various conifer trees and tropical broad-leaved trees. While deposits are found all over the world, most deposits contain only trace amounts of amber. Currently, it is believed that there are only 20 deposits large enough to be mined (needs citation). Interestingly, the chemical composition of the amber has changed little from the time of its first formation. It is entirely organic; made up primarily of hydrocarbons. Due to its chemical nature, it is will oxidize when left unprotected. This means that it will combine with oxygen gas. Eventually, it will disintegrate and crumble away (Grimaldi). Also, amber is extremely sensitive to solvents, such as alcohol, perfumes, acids, basic solutions, and gasoline (Schumann). The following physical properties are characteristic of amber...

Physical Properties

Colors: Yellow, brown, orange, red, white, green, blue Streak: White
Mohs' Hardness: 2 - 2.5 Density: Slightly higher than water
Cleavage: None Fracture: Brittle, conchoidal
Refractive Index: 1.539-1.545 Transparency: Transparent to opaque
Dispersion: None Pleochroism, absent
Absorption spectrum: not determinable Fluorescence: bluish-white

Visit the following websites for more explanation of:


Formation

Contrary to popular thought, amber is not exactly fossilized (Grimaldi). Instead, it is ancient tree resin that comes from a variety of tree sources, not just pine trees. Amber is usually preserved in sediment at the bottom of a lake or river near an ocean or sea. With its density near that of water, it is not capable of floating, however it is extremely buoyant. Amber is capable of being carried to shores of seas and oceans (Grimaldi). This is very common along the edges of the Baltic Sea and North Sea. Known as rav in the Danish language, amber washes ashore as small lumps (Poinar). The largest piece known to be found weighed 21.5 pounds, and it is now kept at the Humbolt Museum en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humboldt_Museum in Berlin, Germany (Grimaldi). Local people harvest the amber to sell or use in artistic ways (Poinar).

Specifically, Baltic amber is known scientifically as succinite, due to its high succinic acid content. It is usually yellow-gold to orange in color. It can be classified many ways but two classifications may be based on color and size of air bubbles that exist in the amber. Color distinguishes bastard amber, which is characterized by milky white swirls (Grimaldi). Foamy amber is caused by large bubbles, whereas bone amber is white and has microscopic bubbles (Grimaldi). Medium sized bubbles would result in flom, or goose-grease amber.

It is now believed that Baltic amber comes from a tree known as Pseudolarix amabilis (needs citation). This 40-million-year-old tree was known to exist in Asia and Scandinavia and it is presumed to have existed in the Baltic Sea region (needs citation).


Inclusions

Amber provides excellent preservation of prehistoric organisms and plants. Inclusions of insects and other biologic examples occur when the organism gets trapped by resin from a tree. These inclusions can provide insight into the feeding habits of prehistoric organisms. Examples of inclusions can be seen at C.J. Fossils, www.cjfossils.com/amber/amber7.jpg and Image Jewelers (scroll down), jewelryeducation.imagesjewelers.com/cool-gemstone-inclusions.php. Another image can be viewed at the Ambar Room by Sigitas Podenas, http://www.emapps.com/_autoweb/index.php?sd=emapps&st=05&id=10.


The Amber Room

In Russia, during the eighteenth century, an entire room was created in amber. Although it was kept in Russian, it was actually created in Prussia and commissioned by King Frederick I of Prussia. The room contained 12 panel walls and 10 pedestal fields inscribed with images and words. The ceilings were originally 16 feet tall, but were eventually expanded to 30 feet tall. Additions were made to the room, such as wall panel symbols of the Romanov family crest. Mirrors were also added, along with a ceiling mural. Restoration was required for the panels, as amber oxidizes when in contact with oxygen. Visitors to the room were required to wear felt slippers. Unfortunately, when the Nazis were in Leningrad (previously St. Petersburg) the Russians removed the Amber Room in order to save it from destruction or theft. It took over 36 hours for six men to disassemble to room (Scott-Clark). Its current location is unknown. In 1979, the Russian government began work on a replicating the Amber Room (Grimaldi), and the work is completed today, opened for public viewing in 2003 at Tsarskoye Selo (PetersburgCity.com, http://petersburgcity.com/news/300/2003/05/13/amberroom/).


Conclusion

In conclusion, Baltic amber is a beautiful, warm gem. Even though it is not considered to be of mineral origin, it has unique properties that make it desirable for research and adornment. Amber has the ability to hold an electric charge and a density similar to water that makes it buoyant. It has a rich variety of colors for gem purposes. Harvesting amber is unique, from mining to collecting from the beach after storms. It has inclusions that interest both scientists and average citizens. Its beauty is admired in numerous works of art, including the Amber Room of Russia.


References and Interesting Links


For more information email egrosstephan@hotmail.com. Webpage created May, 2009; latest update May 15, 2009.


Return to GO 340 Student Final Projects, www.emporia.edu/earthsci/amber/go340/students/stupages.htm or GO 340 Syllabus, www.emporia.edu/earthsci/amber/go340/syllabus.htm