Every couple of years, when I’m channel surfing, I stumble across a new documentary on what happened to the Amber Room. By the way, it’s still lost. The Amber Room was built for a palace near St. Petersburg of gold leaf, mirrors and amber. The shiny yellows and golds are ornately detailed for an aristocratic taste found in another era. The room’s complex construction took about eight years from 1701 to 1709 and included six tones of amber. In WWII, the room was covered in wallpaper in an attempt to prevent looting. It didn’t work. The room was crated up by the Nazi’s and shipped off. Although there has been repeated announcements of imminent discovery and theories on its fate, the Amber Room has yet to be recovered (it has however been reconstructed).
Along the Baltic Sea, pieces of amber wash ashore and have been collected since the stone age. The Dominion Republic is also a great place to find amber. In fact, amber is quite common and found all over the globe. But, what is amber? According to Wikipedia, it’s fossilized tree resin. Coniferous trees are big producers of resins which is a hydrocarbon secretion. If you have ever handled a chunk of fir or pine tree, the turpentine like smell from the sticky residue left on your hands is the resin. Varnishes, adhesives, incense and perfumes have all been made from resins throughout the eons. Resin is different than sap, as sap is the fluid that transports nutrients around a plant (maple syrup is an example of a product made from sap).
Most amber is a warm yellow to orange brown. It’s known to range in colour from a pale lemon yellow to red. Rare blue amber is formed when pyrites are included. Amber is often considered a gem stone, although it’s not indestructible like a diamond.
To me, the most interesting thing about amber is that it can provide a window into ancient worlds. The oldest amber found so far is 320 million years old. We can learn about trees that have since gone extinct from the amber they produced. Since, resins are sticky stuff, the fossilized version ends up with all sorts of interesting things in it. Pollen from when our climate was different can be pulled out of amber giving us clues about ancient conditions.
The most spectacular are the trapped critters – insects, spiders, frogs and lizards. One misstep into the resin and these creatures are forever trapped. Baltic amber has few critters while Dominican Republic amber has more. Over the last few years scientists have isolated DNA from trapped termites, bees and butterflies. A great amber deposit with insects was recently found in India which promises more interesting finds. However, the Jurassic Park concept of isolating dinosaur DNA from the mosquito that bit it, is still fiction.
As a side note: amber ale has the deep yellow-orange of stereotypical amber, thus the name (no actual amber is involved in making amber ale).