Sign up for Lesson Plans, discounts & more!

The Mystery Stone

Amber’s rock-hard consistency doesn’t quite fit with the deep transparent yellow characteristic. The fact that it often contains the remains of ancient bugs adds another challenge to classification. Is this animal, vegetable or mineral? Is it a fossil or does it simply contain fossils? Many debates continue to rage over the classification of this beautiful, ancient gift of nature, but for us amateurs who love the natural clarity and beauty, just understanding a bit about how it came to be does not warrant all the controversy. Suffice it to say, we just want to know a little about what it is and how it came to be.

What is Amber? And How Did It Get Here?

Amber is neither a crystal nor a mineral. It is the hardened sap of an ancient tree. It started out as resin secreted to heal a wound. The resin protected the tree from a certain death by making a sticky, protective barrier against fungus. When the tree eventually fell and began to decay, the sap remained. Buried under layers of vegetation, earth and, sometimes, water, the sap continued to harden from the pressure and heat that naturally builds up in such conditions. This fossilized resin is the final product of millions of years of slow processing.

Picture this scenario:

A fly lands on a tree branch in an area that is now the Baltic sea. While looking for food it steps in sticky sap that the tree has made to protect itself from fungal infection. As the fly struggles to escape it becomes more and more entombed in the sap until it is completely engulfed and suffocates. The tree eventually dies and falls into the swampy water from which it grew. Over the course of millions of years the tree along with countless others becomes a coal deposit and the sap with our fly inside is polymerized and hardened into amber. As more time passes the coal bed is submerged as the sea level rises. Eventually the currents uncover the coal bed, slowly eating into the Surface, little by little. When the erosion reaches the amber it floats to the surface because it is lighter than the salty water. It is then washed ashore where it can be found.

In Glass Houses
Being a sticky sap in its beginnings, fossil resins often contains the remnants of both plant and animal parts. If you’re lucky, you may find a perfectly preserved specimen. Such specimens have allowed scientists to determine that amber is produced by both conifers and deciduous trees.

Don’t Rush Me Like other minerals and rocks, this fossil is the end result in a slow process that creates other fossil forms. If the secretions are very young or undeveloped, they may simply be a hardened resin; Copal is the next stage of development. Copal may be large and may also have remnants of insects or small sea animals present. But copal is not usually as clear as true amber and may be treated to help cure some of these imperfections.

It has long been used for jewelry because of its natural beauty. As far back as the ancient Greeks, it has been written of, many times referencing claims to promote good health or ward off evil spirits. Today, this stone continues to be prized for jewelry and it is used in the construction of smoking devices as well.

For a collector, it is important to find a reputable dealer who can carefully help you see the difference between true amber, copal and even plastic imitations.

You can buy genuine amber from the Dominican Republic at our sister site

Check out some of the Educational Materials for sale on our sister site

Share this page:
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

interested in more? If so, you may want to check out our other sites: - Our online fossil and mineral rock shop. - An educational site about rocks, minerals, and geology.