History of use

How to distinguish amber from stone at sea?

In the sea-okiyan, on the island of Buyan, lies the white-flammable stone Alatyr.
This mythological image of a snow-white flaming stone lying at the center of the universe has accompanied folk legends and conspiracies for centuries. So he will help us set out on a journey to get acquainted with one of the amazing creations of nature, whose name is amber. Bright stones that play in the sun with all shades of yellow and orange have been known to people since Paleolithic times. During the Bronze Age, trade routes connected the lands of Northern Europe and the Nile Valley, and Baltic amber, along with gold, accompanied the pharaohs to the afterlife. In Greek myths, amber was considered the tears of the Heliad nymphs shed for the dead Phaeton. The Greeks were fascinated by the ability of amber to become electrified. Even the word “electricity” itself comes from the Greek “ἤλεκτρον”, that is, “amber”. A tracing paper from Greek is also the Old Russian name for amber, “ilectr”, which in the 16th century was replaced by the usual name, derived from the Lithuanian “amber».

What is amber

Even ancient naturalists guessed about the plant origin of amber. Amber cannot be called a mineral. According to the IMA (International Mineralogical Association) classification, amber belongs to fossil resins.
From a chemical point of view, amber is an amorphous polymer with the formula C10H16O+(H2S). The density is slightly higher than that of water: 1,07 – 1,09 and a maximum of 1,3 g/cm³. Hardness on the Mohs scale 2 -2,5. The color of amber is very diverse: from almost white to green and even blue with all sorts of shades. The reason for the diversity is the impurities of foreign substances in the resin composition. In ultraviolet light, amber glows bluish-white and yellow-green. Like other biogenic formations, amber gradually ages, that is, it oxidizes in air, which leads to fragility and darkening of color. Amber does not like high temperatures and is destroyed already at 200 °C, forming amber oil and amber resin. Placed in fire, it ignites easily. Soluble in alcohol, ether and chloroform. There are different ways to classify amber. Important features are the macromolecular structure of the resin and the degree of transparency. It is known that amber contains remains of ancient flora and fauna, inclusions. If their size exceeds 10 mm, such a stone is considered precious. As we have already said, amber is a fossil resin. And therefore, in order to find out how resin turned into stone, we will go into the distant past.

Amber Forest

Eocene, 40 million years ago. The biosphere recovered after the great extinction event between the Cretaceous and Paleogene. The outlines of the continents are increasingly reminiscent of modern ones. The climate is hot and humid, the subtropical zone comes close to the Arctic Circle. The vast expanses of Fennoscandia are a single landmass. Where the Baltic Sea is located today, a mighty river flows – Eridanus. Its extensive, branched delta is located in the region of modern Netherlands. And along the banks of this river there grows a mixed forest, which has no analogues today. Paleontologists call it “amber.” The Amber Forest is a plant community whose complexity is comparable to that of tropical forests. The upper layer of this northern jungle is represented by sequoias. These mighty giants rise hundreds of meters above the endless green sea. The middle tier consists of conifers and forms a continuous canopy at a height of 40-50 meters. Pines predominate here, accounting for up to 70% of all trees and represented by two dozen species. Among them stands out Pinus succinifera, amber pine. Almost all Baltic amber consists of its resin. The lower tier is deciduous trees: oaks, plane trees, beeches, cinnamon tree; and with them thuja, pine, and spruce thickets. Beneath it there is silence and green twilight; there is little grass here, but there is a lot of rotten leaves, tree branches and trunks. On the edges, where there is a lot of sunlight, there is a dense undergrowth of ferns, palms and bananas, laurel and myrtle. In sunny weather it is light and hot here, and smells of fragrant resin.

Resin accumulation

In order for the resin to turn into amber, it must accumulate in the soil for some time, turning into sedimentary deposits. Even if there are many resin-bearing trees, environmental conditions may prevent resin from accumulating. It is destroyed by exposure to sunlight, temperatures, and microorganisms. Good conditions are created where the light on the forest floor is low, humidity is high, and there are sandy soils. The amber forest in ancient Fennoscandia was characterized by this combination of factors. The resin itself is released in abundance from tree trunks in hot weather. The pines seem to be crying with amber droplets of resin. Any damage to the tree: cracks in the trunk, broken branches and areas where the bark layer had been stripped off is overgrown with entire resinous growths. The resin has disinfectant properties and heals damage, promoting the restoration of wood tissue. Large clumps of resin fall down into the forest floor, carrying insects and small plant debris with them. A lot of resin flows from trees that are broken in a storm or fall from old age. During forest fires, the process of resin accumulation could be interrupted: intense heat destroyed its reserves in the forest floor, but then everything started again. This stage could last relatively short time, up to a million years. And throughout its entire length, moisture was an important factor in allowing fossil resin to survive. Excessive dryness, as well as moisture, of soils could lead to the destruction of fossil resins or their carbonization. Another important factor is the presence of oxygen in the soil. In wetlands, the anaerobic environment makes the resin brittle and short-lived. And with the participation of oxygen, the resin gradually becomes solid. The pressure of the sedimentary layers and temperature in this case “melt” volatile compounds from the resin and turns it into a solid mass, copal. Copal is not yet amber, but already has properties close to amber. The initial process of resin accumulation leading to the formation of copal and then amber has been well studied. It doesn’t have to be the resin of coniferous plants. Modern sap beetles mainly come from the genus of tropical leguminous trees Hymenaea. Their fossil resin, copal, is collected from deposits in Africa and South America. Another important source of fossil resin is the Araucariaceae of the genus agathis. The base of the trunk of their modern representative, the southern agathis (Agathis australis), is completely covered with dark resin. The soil under the tree is saturated with it, and clumps of resin can reach 20 kg. But in order for fossil resin to turn into amber, it needs to go through the next, very important stage.

How is amber formed?

If the resin begins its transformation into amber on land, in conditions of high humidity, then it ends at the bottom of the reservoir. A layer of sediment containing fossil resins can be eroded by water currents and transported to the bottom of a large lake or sea basin. In the Eocene, the lower reaches of the Eridanus River were flooded by sea waters. Rising sea levels turned the wide river into a long sea bay, stretching through Denmark to the modern Baltic states. Here, the bottom waters formed an alkaline environment with a high content of potassium and fine silt. This contributed to the appearance of succinic acid and esters in the fossil resin, and completed the process of polymerization of molecules. And the silt masses, mixed with clay, turned into a greenish-gray mineral, glauconite. Millions of years will pass, and glauconite geologists will determine the presence of amber accumulations in sedimentary rocks. Long sand spits and shallows formed in coastal areas, and when the sea receded, pine trees grew in this place, dropping precious resin. This is how layered amber-bearing deposits of the Baltic region were formed. A new stage in the life of Baltic amber began with the advent of glaciers. About 700 thousand years ago, the ice sheet covered Fennoscandia in a single massif, burying the Eridanus Valley. The weight of the ice mass was so great that the earth’s crust bent, forming a depression. And with the end of the last ice age, 14 thousand years ago, this depression began to fill with water. Over time, the glacial lake became a sea. Its waters eroded amber-bearing deposits, reburying the amber on the seabed and sometimes, during storms, bringing it ashore. Primitive hunters, moving north following herds of deer, found beautiful red stones on the shore. They made jewelry from amber and exchanged it for obsidian from the far south. This is how amber became part of human history.

Where is amber mined?

Amber deposits are known all over the world. Not only in the north of Europe were favorable conditions for its formation. In general, they can be divided into three large groups. 1) Primary deposits.
These deposits are associated with coal seams and are formed on the site of forests in which resin-bearing trees once grew. As a rule, they contain a lot of glauconite, little amber, and its pieces do not reach large sizes. Such deposits are found in Austria, China, the Far East, Alaska and Canada. 2) Secondary deposits, or placers.
Placer deposits are associated with ancient and modern water basins. They are formed when amber is transported by water and redeposited in river beds, on the coasts of seas and lakes. These include the Primorskoe amber deposit. 3) Glacial placers.
These deposits are a special variant of secondary deposits, and are formed when ready-made amber deposits are destroyed by a moving glacier. After the glacier melts, amber accumulates in moraines and lake depressions. Such deposits are known in Greenland, Alaska and Central Europe. Next, we will consider the main places of amber mining. Primorskoye field.
Located on the shores of the Baltic Sea, within the Kaliningrad region. This is the largest amber deposit in the world. It contains up to 90% of all the world’s reserves, and the concentration of amber in the rock is the highest – around 2 kg/m 3. Baltic amber is 40-50 million years old and is equal in quality to a precious stone. Its extraction is carried out in open pits, about 300 tons of stone are mined per year (in Soviet times, up to 800 tons). Klesovskoye field.
Located in Ukraine, in the Rivne region. Its reserves are significant and its geology is well studied. The concentration of amber is significantly less than in the Primorskoe deposit, about 60 g/m 3 . Klesovsky amber, like Baltic amber, was formed in the Eocene, when part of the territory of Ukraine was covered by the waters of the Tethys Ocean. Production volumes are around 300 tons per year, a significant part of the amber is mined illegally. Burma field.
A group of amber deposits located in Myanmar, in the Kachin state. This is the main type of Asian amber and is of commercial importance. The time of formation is the Cretaceous period, about 100 million years ago. Sensational discoveries in recent years, such as a dinosaur tail, were made in Burmese amber. There is a civil war in Myanmar, amber mining is under the control of warring factions, and working conditions in the mines are dangerous to life. Officially, up to 500 kg of birmite is mined per year; sales volumes on the black market are unknown. Dominican field.
Located in the eastern part of the island of Haiti, in the Dominican Republic. In terms of production volumes, this is the second field in the world after Primorskoye. Amber-bearing deposits are located at an altitude of 500 – 1000 m above sea level. The age of amber is small, only 15-20 million years. The source of resin here is not pine, but a bean tree Hymenaea protera. Amber is mined using primitive methods at risk to the lives of workers. Here you can also find amazing blue and blue amber. It is mined no more than 50 kg per year. Mexican deposit.
Located in the south of the country, in the state of Chiapas. Like the Dominican deposit, it is of small age, about 20-25 million years. The source of the resin is a representative of the same genus of legumes, Hymenaea mexicana. The sediments formed in the river bed and preserve fossils characteristic of mangrove ecosystems. The production volume is small, about 4 tons per year.

Inclusions: insects (and not only) in amber

Of course, for paleontologists, amber is not of jewelry value at all. It provides an absolutely fantastic opportunity to see with your own eyes living creatures that lived on Earth tens of millions of years ago. The resin flowing from the trees captured plant debris, pollen, fungal spores, cobwebs, hair, and feathers. Spiders, insects and snails got stuck in it, and sometimes small vertebrates got caught in the resin trap. Inclusions are the name given to the remains of flora and fauna encased in amber. These findings are so amazing that they formed the basis for Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, and a series of films based on it. Findings of whole bodies of vertebrates or their fragments in amber are known. Scientists have lizards, snakes, frogs, birds, even the tail of a small dinosaur at their disposal. So maybe the day is not far off when they can be cloned and brought back to life? Unfortunately this is not possible. What we see in amber are mummified skeletons and outer coverings of animals, or chitinous shells. The resin and the organic acids and esters it contains destroy soft tissues and destroy the contents of cells. Attempts to extract DNA from insects contained in copal no older than 10 thousand years old have been unsuccessful. Even in insects, only small fragments of DNA remain in young resin clumps that are about 60 years old. So, apparently, we will have to say goodbye to the idea of ​​​​bringing “Jurassic Park” into reality. But this does not mean that such finds are useless. Each opens a window into the world of the distant past and provides more information than fossilized remains. This is especially true for vertebrates, because amber preserves what is missing in fossils – integumentary tissue and appearance.

How to distinguish amber from a fake?

The value of amber both as a precious stone and as a source of scientific knowledge creates the ground for its falsification.
Distinguishing amber from its imitation is not easy even for a professional, and to understand this, you can make a list of diagnostic characteristics of amber:
– heterogeneous coloring with unusual transitions and textures;
– the presence of air bubbles of the correct shape;
– relatively light, sinks in fresh water, but floats in salty water;
– cannot be scratched with a fingernail;
– electrified;
– burns with the smell of rosin;
– glows in ultraviolet light. But imitations of amber can also have similar properties, so it is important to know what the fakes are made of. 1) Pressed amber.
Strictly speaking, this is not a fake at all. This amber is made from crumbs and production waste, that is, from natural raw materials. Pressed amber reveals layered material and irregularly shaped air bubbles. Otherwise, it differs little from solid stone. 2) Digged.
With copal, everything is more complicated, since it is also a fossil resin, just young and immature to amber. There are inclusions in copal and it looks almost like amber. But upon contact with alcohol, copal leaves sticky traces, while on amber the alcohol evaporates. 3) Natural resins.
Imitation amber can be made from the resin of modern trees, such as kauri or dammara. Sometimes powdered amber chips are mixed with modern resins. For example, an interesting ornamental material is produced – faturan. Such an imitation can be determined using alcohol or heating – as the temperature rises, the resin softens. 4) Artificial resins and plastics.
Depending on the material, they can be light, electrified, or glow in ultraviolet light. Such imitations are revealed by a uniform color without transitions, as well as an abundance of air bubbles or their complete absence. A good test is to test it with a hot needle: the smell of burning plastic is difficult to confuse with rosin. 5) Glass and acrylic.
They attract attention with their very bright colors and perfect surface without defects. Glass is also heavy and is not afraid of heat. Acrylic begins to melt when burned.


So, our long journey from the resin of the amber forest to jewelry and paleontological finds is over. But the story of amber is not over. Millions of years will pass, and that resin, which in the form of copal is ripening today in sedimentary deposits, will turn into an amazingly beautiful stone, sparkling like a particle of the sun. 90% of the amber reserve is located on the Baltic coast, in the Kaliningrad region. Amber is mined here on an industrial scale at the only amber plant in the world, which is located in the village of the same name. To search for the mineral on your own, it is better to go to the Kaliningrad beaches: the Baltic Sea generously throws amber onto the shores. You will find tips on where and how to collect amber in this article.

Which Baltic Sea beaches are best to look for amber?

  • Beaches of Yantarny
  • Beaches of Zelenogradsk
  • Beaches of Svetlogorsk
  • Beaches of Pionersky
  • Beaches of Primorye
  • Beaches of Baltiysk and Baltic Spit

On the Baltic Spit, you can search for minerals with like-minded people: there, near the sea, the Vikingood glamping site is located, and guests love to spend time collecting sunstone.

When to collect amber?

The easiest way to find amber chips is after a storm: waves wash the stone out of the depths of the relict flora and wash it ashore. You will notice ambers among the algae and other marine vegetation.

To search for amber, choose a clear day: the sun’s rays will illuminate the pieces of stone.

If the weather is windy, you can look for amber among the dunes.

How to collect amber?

Most of the treasures found will consist of small amber chips. But you might also find some real nuggets!

To increase your chances of making a big catch, you can take a net with you, put on a wetsuit and fish for amber from the surf. But when choosing this method, be careful: firstly, being among high waves may be unsafe, and secondly, your activity may be regarded as mining amber for commercial purposes – the administrative fine for this ranges from 3 to 000 rubles.

A more traditional method for tourists and locals is gathering. While walking along the coast, carefully examine the flora washed ashore by the waves: the find may be hidden among stones, shells, algae, shellfish and other debris, which is abundant at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Approach collecting amber as a way to have fun, relax, and enjoy nature through a meditative activity. Get ready to enjoy the process, not the result: even a modest handful of light golden stones will warm you on cold winter evenings, reminding you of vacation.

How to distinguish real amber?

It is not easy for a beginner to recognize a real stone. There are many ways to distinguish amber from glass or other stones. Let’s talk about those that can be quickly applied right on the beach.

  1. Color. Amber has a heterogeneous color: shades on the stone can change from light yellow to dark brown.
  2. Scratch resistant. If you try to cause damage with the tip of a knife or blade, the amber will crumble into small fragments that can be easily ground into powder.
  3. Odor when rubbed. By holding a piece of amber in your warm palms, you can smell the smell of resin or pine needles.
  4. Ability to burn. Amber ignites within a couple of seconds of contact with fire and continues to burn for some time even after you remove the source.

Is it possible to export found amber from Kaliningrad?

Tourists are not allowed to export amber collected on the coast outside the Kaliningrad region. However, we are talking only about the so-called raw amber – unprocessed stone. Amber products for personal use, such as jewelry or paintings, are allowed to be exported.

What to do with the found amber? The legal solution is to leave the mineral where you collected it.

We summarize the

So, what is important for keen amber collectors to remember:

  • The best time to look for amber is a sunny day after a storm;
  • You can collect amber on any beach in the Kaliningrad region, special attention should be paid to the Baltic Spit;
  • Amber can be distinguished from other stone or glass by color, fragility, smell and ability to burn;
  • It is prohibited to export collected amber outside the region;
  • Amber products can be exported.

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