Last updateWed, 20 May 2020 12am

The Story Behind the Stone: Amber waves

Jarrett blueGenuine blue amber rough from Dominican Republic. Photo WikipediaWe create jewelry out of so many natural elements. Besides diamonds and colored stones, we also like pearls. We like shell. We like it all, including amber.

Pretty. Old.

This resinous organic material is not a stone in the classic sense of an earth mined mineral. Rather, amber was harvested from ancient tree sap, hardened into a fossilized state. It formed tens of millions of years ago, historians say. So, you can imagine it’s been used for adornment since antiquity. Remnants of decorative amber attributed to the Stone Age have been found. Pretty - pretty old, indeed.

Just the Facts Please

Most people recognize amber in its natural state of transparent golden honey-hued pieces. The soft amorphous material ranks 2.5 on the Mohs scale, appearing in various levels of translucency to opaque. Nature also produces this material in green, red (called Cherry Amber), even blue (from the Dominican Republic) and black.

Jarrett greenVintage necklace with irregular shaped green amber beads. Photo Catawiki AuctionsMuch of the amber we are familiar with for jewelry has come from the Baltic Sea region - like Norway, Sweden, Latvia, Denmark, Estonia and Poland. The Baltic variety had been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back some 3,200 years BC. As decorative objects, it has also been found in Mycenaean (northern Greece) tombs and elsewhere across Europe. Still today, amber beads are used by some European cultures to help soothe teething babies.


Originally a resin, amber sap was initially a semi-liquid substance. If it becomes heated to 200 degrees Celsius it will revert to being sap-like again. So, don’t heat amber to 200°C. If you do happen to heat it, go ahead and burn the stuff as the ancient Chinese were wont to do. Burning amber was a popular custom used during their many festivities - where it was prized for the distinctive musky fragrance it emitted.

Jarrett mantisPrehistoric amber housing ancient praying mantis. Photo Heritage Auctions

The Critters Inside

Each of the many grades of amber helps determine its value. Some of the most prized amber material has something in it - bugs and other small critters to be exact. In its earlier life as a tree sap it was very sticky. Imagine the things that became entombed inside that semi-liquid goop.

A Window into Antiquity

Living things trapped inside amber are preserved for all time and look just like they did in life millions of years ago. Think about that for a minute. Some of those insects and small creatures don’t exist anymore, but thanks to amber, we can see them as they were on their last unlucky day. The rarer the object inside the amber, the more valuable it is.  

Amber makes a memorable jewelry item owing to its unique nature. You never see two pieces exactly alike. The story telling ops are endless - so are its color variations, shapes and inclusions.

Award winning trade journalist and gemologist Diana Jarrett is a Registered Master Valuer Appraiser and a member of the Association of Independent Jewellery Valuers (AIJV). She’s a popular speaker at conferences and trade shows. Jarrett writes for trade and consumer publications, online outlets, her blog: Color-n-Ice, and www.jewelrywebsitedesigners.com. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., visit her website at www.dianajarrett.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter (Loupey).