Amber and the Komboloi Tradition
Rock&Gem Magazine|July 2021
Exploring the Science and Mindfulness Behind the Practice
HELEN SERRAS-HERMAN
Amber is an organic material, a plant resin originating from coniferous trees, which lived between 320 and 60 million years ago. The oldest recovered amber dates to the Upper Carboniferous period, 320 million years ago (www.mindat.org). Over thousands of years, the soft resin became a hard, fossilized resin, and the molecules have polymerized. The conditions of heat, pressure, oxygen and light exposure must be right for the amber to form. Its chemical composition is approximately C 10 H16 O. Amber’s structure is non-crystalline. It may show flow lines, and often have inclusions of exquisitely preserved organisms, such as insects, spiders, frogs and lizards, bird feathers, bones, and plant materials, which were trapped in the tree’s resin.

Amber is found in several places worldwide, but amber from northern Europe collected around the Baltic Sea shores is considered the best quality. Amber is found on the west coast of Koenigsberg in Prussia, which became Kaliningrad of Russia. Amber is also found in Burma, Sicily, Central Europe, Romania, Mexico, Canada, several US locations, and the Dominican Republic (Amber, The Golden Gem of the Ages, Patty C. Rice, 1980). Baltic amber has a distinct “fingerprint” inclusion - plant hairs (stellate trichomes) - not found in the Dominican amber. Although ambers from different countries are equally labeled “amber,” there are differences between the materials based on their age, tree origin, and chemical composition, all of which reflect on the quality.

I reached out to Maggie Campbell Pedersen, expert gemologist from London and author on organic gem materials, who shared with me her latest data on dating amber: “the coniferous-origin Baltic Sea amber is 34-38 million year old (ma) and contains a significant amount of succinic acid (3-8%) compared to other ambers, which contain none or very little”. Pedersen also said, “Amber from the Dominican Republic is between 16 and 20 ma, and so is Mexican amber, while amber from Burma (known as burmite) is known to be over 100 million years old.

Burmite is a little harder than other ambers and is often cracked, with calcite inclusions. Petersen discusses all ambers on her website (www.maggiecp.com) and those from “historic” locations, including North America, France, Lebanon, Romania, and Sicily, and the most recent finds from Australia and Ethiopia.

I asked gemologist, appraiser, and lecturer – and my good friend- Denise Nelson, from the Inner Circle, to share her experience from her recent visit to the Amber Museum – the Bursztyne Museum - in Gdansk, Poland, dedicated to the history of amber. “The museum is housed in a medieval seven-floor high tower rebuilt after the WWII destruction in the center of the city. Every floor holds amber collections from different periods.

The exhibits, which include the most astonishing ancient plants, animals, and insects encased in amber, thick-skinned amber boulders, and modern art created by local artists, surprise and captivate visitors. Hundreds of natural Baltic amber items, placed in well-lit cases inside the domed dark rooms which once housed a torture chamber and a prison, create a golden glow.” Denise also said, “The local streets, filled with tourist shops selling an abundance of amber items, are in stark contrast to the cold and harsh waters of the Baltic Sea, where the ancient forests once stood and amber has been washed up, collected, traded, and treasured since the Paleolithic era.”

The magnificent Amber Room was a chamber decorated with amber panels in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg, Russia. It was initially constructed in the early 18th century, but it was dismantled by the German Nazis and disappeared during World War II. An astonishing reconstruction of those panels and that room began in 1976 and was finished and installed in 2003.

During the 2004 Tucson gem shows, we visited the JOGS Amber Pavilion and the magnificent Amber Room Museum exhibit with real Amber Room objects and carvings from Russia. I talked to the amber workshop director, Boris Igdalov, who was on-site demonstrating. I was fascinated by the craftsmanship perfection of the amber mosaic pieces. Among them a chalice, a plate with the Romanov seal, and fabulous chess set with chess pieces of transparent amber and opaque amber.

Amber was known in the ancient Greek world as electron. It was described in Homer’s Odyssey, and later by the ancient Greek historians Theophrastos and Hesiod, and philosopher Aristotle. Amber was considered an amulet against the evil eye, and a therapeutic against aches of the neck and tonsils. My husband and I saw fabulous amber necklaces at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, Greece, from the Mycenaean civilization, dating to the 15th and 16th centuries BC.

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