Amber is fossilized tree resin. It has formed from resin that oozed out of the cracks in the bark of trees millions of years ago. Sometimes the sticky resin captured insects and other organic matter. Left to harden and then buried in sediments the amber endured, capturing an ancient moment in time.
What is resin?
Resin protects plants; it has antibacterial properties and the sticky substance hinders insects gnawing or burrowing into bark. Some trees can produce resin in such large quantities that it seeps out of cracks in the bark and runs down their trunks.
Resin first hardens into a substance called copal and chunks of copal get buried in soil and sediments. Over millions of years the copal hardens into amber. Any insects or other inclusions that were stuck in the resin are perfectly preserved.
Individual amber pieces often contain evidence about how they were formed. They can contain pieces or impressions of bark, or many layers that built up by successive flows of resin.
Both copal and amber are light so can be carried by water far from where they originally formed.
Where is amber from?
Most of the world’s amber comes from the Baltic region of northern Europe, but amber is found all over the world. Some rich deposits are mined commercially, particularly for the jewelry trade. Smaller deposits are mostly of scientific interest, particularly amber that contains insects and other inclusions. In the exhibition you'll see samples from the Baltic region, Mexico, North America, Australia, Romania, Borneo, Burma (Myanmar), Canada, China, the Dominican Republic, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, the Lebanon and the United Kingdom.
Amber is often found washed-up on beaches, particularly around the Baltic Sea. Baltic amber is often washed up on the beaches of Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent and some pieces have even made it as far north as Fife.
Amber has been used to make jewellery for thousands of years. It is easily worked and the variety of colours and forms of amber make it a very versatile and beautiful material for makers and designers. For centuries, amber was an expensive, high status material, worn only by the elite. Today it is widely available and much cheaper.
The unique appearance and high value of amber jewellery has led to many forms of imitation – using a wide variety of different materials, from glass to polystyrene. Sometimes it is easy to spot imitations; others are more subtle and require careful observation and testing to find out exactly what they are made of.