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Baltic Amber Magic: Know your inclusions

Is it possible for amber to fascinate us even more than it already does with its warmth, magic, unique range of hues and natural patterns? The short answer is “yes” according to ELZBIETA SONTAG.

The term “inclusion” is very often found in stores selling amber, but what exactly does the word mean when referring to amber? Is it only some impurity found inside? Inside—yes. Impurity—also yes, by and large. But an inclusion in amber is very special because it is often much more valuable than the piece of amber in which it is found.

In the amber market, an inclusion is most often associated with an animal or plant, but such an association is only partial. Anything that is found inside amber is an inclusion, as long as—and most importantly—it got there in a natural way.

It can be organic debris, a plant or an animal, but an inclusion can also be a drop of water, inorganic compounds, or bubbles of air or other gases. Basically, it can be anything that, at some point millions of years ago, fell into the liquid resin and got trapped during a natural process.

Inclusions can be divided into organic: plants, animals or their remains; and inorganic: air bubbles, pyrite and water. Indeterminable organic debris and inorganic inclusions are often a gratifying artistic material as they make up inimitable patterns used in amber jewellery, whereas well-preserved organic inclusions are unique collector’s items and scientific material for fossil aficionados.

The age of inclusions is the same as that of the amber they are contained in. For Baltic amber, the fossils found in it come from the Eocene, circa 45 million years ago. But what makes a hairy bug become a valuable inclusion?

Just think of how many factors must have fallen into place for such an inclusion to happen. How long was the path for a creature living millions of years ago in an Eocene forest to end up as an inclusion in a cabochon?

In order to become an inclusion, an animal or plant had to live in, or at least have visited, the amber forest in order to make contact with the sticky resin. It also had to be small enough to fall into and get trapped in the fluid resin.

A male pine bast scale in Baltic amber
A male pine bast scale in Baltic amber
A cockroach (known to almost everyone) that is trapped in Baltic amber can be very expensive
A cockroach (known to almost everyone) that is trapped in Baltic amber can be very expensive

Then, the dead organisms embedded in the resin had to be able to withstand the chemical and physical processes that took place when the resin solidified and was then transported and weathered.

But that is not all—a piece with such an inclusion finally had to be excavated and brought to a jeweller’s atelier for the plant or animal to be noticed in the crafting process.

So, it is not surprising that pieces of amber with inclusions constitute a small percentage of amber in jewellery studios, or that some may reach exorbitant prices. The animals preserved in amber are usually invertebrates, although vertebrates have also left their mark.

Baltic amber has yielded lizards, with feathers or hair. The predominant animal groups are insects and arachnids, with the other groups making up approximately 1 per cent of the total. Not all of them are found with equal frequency in amber and not all are perfectly preserved. Clearly, flying insects and those that lived in close proximity of resin-producing trees would get trapped much more often.

True flies (dipterans) are a very good example. The small, shade-loving non-biting midges are common, whereas their blood-sucking cousins, mosquitoes, are unique finds. Hymenopterans are similar in this regard.

Ants, which are often found on tree trunks, are frequent, while bees, which live in the meadows, are a rarity. Acariform mites (Acariformes) predominate among arachnids, whereas desert camel spiders (Solifugae) are extremely rare, with only two specimens found in Baltic amber to date.

A termite (Isoptera) trapped in Baltic amber
A termite (Isoptera) trapped in Baltic amber
Biting midges copulating 45 million years ago were caught in resin
Biting midges copulating 45 million years ago were caught in resin

Plants are usually represented in amber by indeterminable pollen and stellate hairs (trichomes). Larger parts of plants, such as twigs, leaves or inflorescences, make up less than 1 per cent of the discovered inclusions.

When you look inside amber, you can see not only what lived 45 million years ago, but also what happened at the time. So-called frozen fossils are a separate group of inclusions where you can see examples of parasitism, predatory behaviour, copulation or egg laying.

This immediately leads to the question: Is only a large and fully preserved inclusion valuable? And most of all, “what is its price?” Unfortunately, there is no universal answer here. Everything depends on who buys it and for what purpose. It is difficult to determine the value of an inclusion, more so because its value is often different for a jeweller, collector or scientist. A scientist may find a simple wing valuable, while it is completely irrelevant to a jeweller or collector.

Invertebrates like this centipede are rare inclusions in Baltic amber
Invertebrates like this centipede are rare inclusions in Baltic amber

Cabochons with an inclusion are unique finds and at the same time a rather specific material. Not everyone will consider a dead fly preserved in the centre of a pendant an encouragement to buy the jewellery. Yet, even though an inclusion may not seem pretty to everyone, it is definitely interesting.

Both whole organisms and their parts preserved in amber allow us to discover the world from around 45 million years ago. The extinct world captivates not only researchers—just think Jurassic Park and its main audience—where everything began with a mosquito trapped in amber.

Millions of years ago, amber was a deadly trap for forest insects
Millions of years ago, amber was a deadly trap for forest insects

By collecting pieces of amber and looking inside them, a vision of a forest can be created. Not a Jurassic Park, of course, but an Eocene one. Amber inclusions are not only a source of information or material for a collector, they can also be used in jewellery, where it is not always necessary to have intact specimens of animals or plants. Even air bubbles or fragments of plant tissue are unique and interesting features for a centre stone.

The amber inclusions market is vibrant and fires the imagination. Yet, it is also very challenging since it is not possible to identify every inclusion. Sometimes, it is even irrelevant because what matters is only what it looks like in a ring or other piece of jewellery. Having said that, in order to avoid unpleasant situations, key questions should be answered on your purchase document, namely what kind of inclusion it is (organic or inorganic) and what kind of amber it is encased in.

How to include Amber

Jewellers can capitalise on amber sales by stressing the value and rich history of the stone to customers. According to Costas Larabouloukis, director of the Amber Centre in Southport, trends in amber jewellery are versatile and can find a place on any shop floor.

“The most popular colours of amber are honey to cognac. However in recent years there has been a sharp increase in the sales of the rarer milky, white or butterscotch amber. There are over 200 shades of amber from white to almost black,” he says.

According to Larabouloukis, silver set earrings, pendants and rings have always been popular. Recent trends have swayed to favour perfect round amber bead necklaces and bracelets from 8 – 18 mm while interest in amber with inclusions has increased substantially.

“The amber we sell is mainly Baltic Amber which has the best clarity and dates back 40 - 50 million years. Every piece of Amber is unique, often encapsulating plant material and sometimes insects that are perfectly preserved. This gives us a window to the past allowing us to recreate a whole forest from the inclusions found in the amber.”

When displaying amber in store, Larabouloukis reccomends showcasing the stones under warm glow lights, as white and blue tints do not favour amber’s glow.

All photos are courtesy of Elzbieta Sontag and Jonas Damzen. Inclusions are from the Museum of Amber Inclusions, University of Gdansk and Jonas Damzen collection.

This article was first published in Summer 2018 edition of InColor magazine: Reprinted with permission from International Colored Gemstones Association:

Elzbieta Sontag

Elzbieta Sontag, Ph.D, is with the Museum of Amber Inclusions at the Faculty of Biology of the University of Gdansk.

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Saturday, 18 January, 2020 06:06am
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