Amber – More than just a pretty stone

Image of rough cut river amber

In honor of Arbor Day, let’s discuss amber.

Amber is one of the rare semi-precious gemstones created by plants. Resin is a substance found in most plants and is used much like platelets in to scab over wounds. It protects the plant from invading bacteria and insects trying to get under the bark to eat the delicious wood. Ever touch a pine tree and your hand is suddenly sticky? That’s the resin trying to protect the tree.

For the resin to harden into what is classically thought of as amber, two things need to happen. The tree needs to die and fall to the ground, to be later covered in soil as time passes. If the resin is resistant to decay, the pressure from all that weight eventually squeezes out all the liquid, forcing the resin to turn into stone. Normally, this isn’t the case. Most plants don’t have decay resistant amber, so most pieces of amber can be traced back to their original plant. In the Baltic, usually amber can be traced back to the dammar evergreen tree. In America and Africa, the amber can be traced back to some member of the Hymenaea genus, another group of evergreens.

No, this does not mean scientists are tracing DNA to figure that out. The DNA would’ve degraded completely by the time any piece of amber was found, no matter what the Jurassic Park movies will tell you.

That doesn’t mean it’s only useful as jewelry. Amber, while useful as a source for studying what’s caught in it, is also used in traditional medicine. For millennia, people have used amber to prevent disease. Amber has been used as talismans against madness, sore throats, and to help with fertility. It was smoked, mixed with honey, steeped in water as a kind of tea, or sucked on like a throat lozenge to help with teething or sore gums.

Apparently, this is because of a quirk in how amber is formed. As it’s being transformed from resin into amber, the external layer accumulates succinic acid. Succinic acid is a common chemical found in medicines today to help with swelling and boost immunity. Baltic amber is unique in that it has the highest amount of succinic acid in its outer layer, making it the strongest medicine of the different kinds.

So next time you have a headache or feel tired and stressed, come by our store and pick up some amber. It’s the best looking medicine you can buy!