Amber, What is it.....?

Amber is thought by those of science to be tree sap secreted by long-dead trees for defense against wounds. The sap is clear and sticky and often collects bugs and other organic and inorganic contagion as it exudes. This would include bits of vegetation and other debris. As the scheme goes, the sap ran down the outside of its "parent" tree and somehow got carried away by flooding, then became buried in the resulting aluvium (mud). After resting in such aluvium sediment for millions of years, the sap became what we know today as amber.

Check out the various books and sites on the web for Amber and this story is what you will find.

Thus, my first real contact with actual lumps of raw amber was very surprising. I had obtained pieces of Baltic Amber from a German shop. The parcel came through the mail as a box containing a plastic bag with a pound of the stuff. Upon opening the bag, my attention focused upon the largest chunk in the lot and I grabbed it first. It was predominantly orange in its transparent color and as hard as a proverbial rock.

In short order, I had fondled every sizeable piece in the bag. I had supposed the pieces would resemble...well.... puddles, or perhaps "tears" of resin formed when the stuff supposedly dripped down the sides of its parent tree or accumulated upon the dirt surrounding the base of the ancient trunk. There was no such appearance.

As my eyes searched from amongst the lumps I became aware of an odd similarity ...but not one of simple resin-puddling. The similarity was, rather instead, that of a cast impression­ as if the resin I held had once been poured into some sort of cavity -- like a mold. There was something familiar about the look of the stuff.....

I again grabbed the largest chunk and examined it, turning it over and over. In my hands it felt very light-weight; still, its toughness and plastic-like supreme hardness justly presented itself.

I held the odd-looking chunk of amber towards the light, my nearsightedness allowing for a very close scrutiny. Golden light refractions passed through or were broken up by bubbles, cracks, layering lines, and one rather opaque area. Also visible were two distinct holes tapering into the central area of the golden mass. Dimensionally, the Amber lump resting between my thumb and index was about 2 inches long and one inch wide. It was cracked open on one side revealing a wonderfully jagged and glassy, stratified rather than homogenous appearance. The color nearest the center was lighter, almost colorless but slightly yellow; and very transparent! I spun it around to marvel at the other side. That side was much darker, orange-brown in color, with little slightly fissured bumps over the whole -- similar to a turkey's bare flesh plucked of its feathers. Without a doubt, this outer bumpy "skin" represented the original but now weathered impression of the cavity or mold within which the Amber resin- mass had accumulated "millions" of years ago. Judging by the two parallel and tapered holes penetrating well into the "hide" of this particular lump, stalagmite-like projections had arisen from the bottom of the original cavity which the flowing resin had entered. It wasn't a task to figure out what that original "mold" for this and the other lumps had been; what I was now seeing was a positive impression of a very ancient cavity left by some pre-historic wood-eating or boring bugs!

And so the woody projections which had caused the two odd holes in the Amber's substance had been left by long-gone insect occupants eating out a home; I had seen this effect often enough in nature while tearing into old rotten tree-stumps. Unfortunately for me, by the time this Amber resin had filled its eaten-out cavity, the insect residents had already well-departed their woody home-- there were no bugs hopelessly trapped within the golden glassy material; nothing to gaze lifelessly back out at me from the transparent mass.

Though I had never held or examined an actual lump of Amber before now, there was another certain familiarity arising from my memory. That familiarity was counter to supposed thought. I had always heard and read that Amber was the hardened but freshly exuded sap from its source tree. I instinctively realized the Amber lump I was holding was, instead, much more likely not freshly exuded. Rather instead, it looked like the heated resinous result I get on a regular basis when I cook balsams or their dried gums. In other words, it exactly matched a form of ROSIN.

Balsams come into the world in the sticky form of a liquid comprised of resin with an essential oil. For example, pine balsam is the resin ingredient coupled with turpentine spirit (at one time, turpentine was the name given to the balsam but today we know turpentine as merely the essence after extraction­distilling­ of the balsam. Balsams "bleed" from cuts or wounds occurring to the parent tree. You see, pure resin, which is a solid substance, cannot just pop out of a must necessarily emerge from tiny channels in the bark coupled with a "thinner"; that is, it must be in a liquid form.

Throughout my life as a painter I have always had a strong urge to find and create my own materials. When I was a kid, I used to make clear Spruce-resin castings of acorns and other bric-brac, by first making a one or two-piece mud-mold with the object then collecting gobs of Spruce gum and melting it over heat in a can. Once liquified, the hot resin (more correctly termed rosin because the gum has lost its evaporative essential oil ) could be poured into the impression or mold-hole to make small golden ornaments. It was great fun and valuable activity to a young mind. I never out-grew such simple activities.

Over the years, I have spent many, many pleasant hours scraping Spruce and other gums from their source trees ( it doesn't take much to make me happy). Highways are one of my favorite sources. Road crews periodically cut off the spreading limbs of Coniferous and Deciduous trees along these byways. I delight at finding such Coniferous occurrences as they provide me with a lot of weathered resin in a short period of labor. One can merely take a shortened stiff-bladed palette knife and begin scrapping the soft and opaque gummy material into any convenient container (often also freely available along roadsides).

Although the fresh exudate, or balsam, from a coniferous tree is runny and crystal clear, what I glean from the roadside is the older opaque, whitish, and porous conglomerate. Fresh tree sap contains a lot of essential oil-- again, and for example, in the case of Pine, Fir, Larch, and Spruce gum, this essential oil is still generally termed turpentine. As this volatile oil quickly begins evaporating from the fresh balsam, it allows shrinking, porosity, and weathering to have its way with the remaining resin left behind. By the time I get to it, it is rather concentrated in actual resin-content but anything but clear and usually contains much woody bits and other contagion. In other words, this aged but still sticky stuff is far from usable with oil paint.

No problem. I put some of this ugly gummy material into a can and re-melt it on an electric hot plate. Depending on how long it seethes, it will either cool and semi-harden into an opaque soft-solid, or, with more heating, a crystal-clear, hard, brittle, and amber-colored mass-- called rosin. Of course, without any filtering, everything-- like bark, dirt, and bugs trapped and collected during my initial hunt-- will be wonderfully visible still encased and protected within the final resulting pure and perfectly clear and bright glassy resin-mass.

Though this newly heat-amalgamated rosin material looks like a lump of amber, it is surprisingly much (much, much!) weaker in comparison and can easily be scratched with one's fingernail. If you crush it to a powder, it will soon feel sticky to the fingers­ indicating its remaining essential oil content is far from "dry". Still, when some of this re-formed coniferous resin is melted into a painter's oil at extremely high temperatures, it does create several advantages over using only the straight oil alone. Hand-ground paint with a touch of this resultant oil varnish handles a bit differently than straight oil-and-pigment paint. It may dry slower (spruce), or quicker (White Fir), but the dried paint film will be glossier, and also become tack-free upon drying. Depending on the actual resin-content used in making it, this sort of oil varnish can be made to cause my hand-ground paint to exhibit a long "melting" enamel-like appearance, as if a drop of standoil were added. However, the paint made with the oil varnish addition will not run down the canvas like the use of standoil would engender. There is another and very historic use: dissolved into turpentine, a drop or more of pine or spruce rosin spirit varnish makes freshly-handground paint stiffen into an impasto-ish condition. The paint becomes very "short". This thickening firmness can find good use while painting but it also allows the conjured paint to be easily and better stored up into tubes (or, in the olden times, intestinal animal sections termed 'bladders'). Somehow, the bit of coniferous resin in the paint-mix allows a lasting shelf-life.

Know that I have used these coniferous resins to make oil varnishes often. After many years, the still very bright and clean paint films utilizing it have not leveled, as they might often do when ground with only a drying oil. My careful strokes in paint still retain their sharpness, crispness. I have found no deleterious effects. Contrary to popular opinion, there is NO darkening. Additionally, the paint itself appears to be just as tough against solvents as the oil would have allowed if it had been used alone; I'm not certain but it may be even tougher (some painters of today and of the past were known to add actual balsams to their hand-ground paint. I have little experience with this manner of resin-use-- my own preferred method involves greatly heating the rosin into an oil-- a process that thoroughly combines the oil and resin on a molecular level).

Again, I have never found any detractions and only positive properties gained by the use of these common "gums" collected in my backyard, backwoods, or the roadside. I firmly believe artists have been using these same materials for centuries, though many current painters or experts will decry their use as certain routes to painting perdition. [To each his own; but be careful the expert who will tell you not to try such and such as it will fail and certainly ruin your work. Know that no man knows everything. Better you try many things by yourself! Trial and error be your guide. And never ye ever tell another artist not to try something he has an interest in; lest ye go to painter's Hell.]

Anyway, importantly, this all aside, I do recognize what re-melted resin looks and behaves like and I am rather certain the Baltic amber chunk I first held was simply a heat- re-amalgamation of the initial balsam-exudate that occurred so many ancient years ago. I reiterate that this was not what I had previously been led to believe. You see, restating what I've read, Amber Balsam, like Coniferous tree balsam, was released by the tree­ inside or outside­ to fend off injury or attack and thereafter simply solidified, often crystal-clear, with no further shrinking, weathering, or running. Somehow, already hardened into this perfectly clear condition and with burial in mud it all became polymerized to become that amazingly tough and resistant near-perfect natural material we know it to be.

Well, I can certainly understand how burial and time-passage might be factors to the process but I have to jump ship if someone tells me the stuff secreted straight from the tree becomes hardened in such an initially-perfect condition; and, because of this, I may be alone in my thinking. Still, if you are one who seeks, perhaps you might hear me out. There is never harm in that.

Amber is basically aged Rosin initially formed by an Accumulation of Balsam and aged gum through heating!

From what I've read, Amber is a wonderful, very hard, yet plastic-like substance which is generally and broadly assumed to be either polymerized coniferous tree-resin (i.e. Succinite), or various "saps" thought to be from leguminous trees (pod-bearing trees, such as Retinite-- Dominican Amber), or even some other vague types from varying geographical and botanical sources. Be it known, there are many types of Amber scattered in deposits throughout the world. They range in hardness and other properties. Amber is often found in blue-clay or semi-coal or lignite layers of sediment. I understand several deposits occur in the US; central New Jersey and just off the shoreline of North Carolina to name two.

One of the oldest and hardest kinds of Amber is that first recorded as found around the Baltic region of Europe. Termed "Baltic Amber", this same type can also be found in other parts of the world. Baltic Amber is reputed to be many millions of years old. Of course, no one can vouch for its actual age and I do wonder with my limited mentality about anyone accepting wholeheartedly the theory of evolution and reported ages of sedimentary layers. Suffice to say, Amber is really old! In fact, its sources may now be extinct. Chemically, Baltic Amber is known to contain much Succinic Acid (also called "Amber oil")-- something not available in our usual Pines, Larches, Firs, or Spruces.

When heated, Baltic Amber gives off a nasty aroma that is immediately familiar to my nose. It is distinct and pungent, foretelling its succinic acid content. Curiously, some new research has revealed that a tree capable of producing a succinic acid-containing resin is still extant, growing in the Eastern mountains and hills of China. This particular Coniferous tree is the Pseudolarix Pine. Also adding weight to this thinking is the finding of Pseudolarix pine cone chips and pine needles in some Canadian "Baltic Amber" specimens. Personally, I'm thrilled thinking the amazing tree which produced such a perfect and lasting material as Amber may still be available to our world today. Hold a piece of this light-weight stuff in your hand and know that it is so very old and came to us from a tree rather than a factory. To my mind, as inanimate objects go, it is an almost incredible naturally-made substance.

As already mentioned, the specimens I first marveled over appear to have been formed within a hollowed-out cavity within the source-tree's original trunk. And, as I said, the outside of each piece seems to reflect this cavity as probably being carved out by some sort of wood-eating insect. As this hollow cavity was already available for the vertically-running resin to collect and fill, I must assume something like a great heat initially caused the tree to start re-amalgamating the available stores of the slightly already aged resin within it. Whatever the heat-- perhaps a great forest-fire-- it was enough to evaporate off the turpentine essence leaving the predominantly pure resin constituent behind. However, this heat was not enough to completely burn the actual tree as that tree obviously remained as the storehouse to preserve the Amber resin from outside weathering and decay; simple agents that would have certainly destroyed the resin had they been allowed to attack it. Very likely, this heat was hot enough to penetrate and "melt" what was mostly and actually old gum in resinous "pockets" throughout the tree ­ a material that had already lost most of its terpentine essence­ just like the semi-hardened gum-stuff I collected from modern Coniferous trees today. Excepting, this gummy material was within the ancient trees, not on the outside where it was doomed to burn and weather. Within the tree, the amber gum merely became hot enough to re-form into a purer fluid mass. Of course, gravity caused it to run downwards throughout and within the tree. Any hot resin running outside the tree would have been burned away, but the stuff running inside would have a good chance to arrive safely to the bug-made "molding chambers" located likely near the base of the trunk. And so the running Amber resin (rosin) had a chance to collect in such gaps in the wooden trunk, then quickly cool into a firm mass. It must have soon become rather strong in character, too, before the tree itself, with time, eventually turned to rotten dust and beyond. I say this because it is a wonderment to see little and thin projections still attached to the Amber lumps. Very little pressure would have been necessary to break these slight sections, yet they remained attached together.

What about the encapsulation of plant material. How could cones and needles get within the bug chambers? Easy! Rodents often seek out bug chambers for living quarters. Such creatures could simply carry the plant materiale in for nest-building. Or, another means, the wind could blow rampant needles into any of a myriad of possible openings. [One may also wonder why such small rodents are not found in the amber lumps. Know that rodents are fleet of foot and could scury away when the hot rosin began trickling into their lairs. Not so the slower tiny-legged bugs. Another consideration: even if a rodent was unlucky enough to become totally encased and trapped within the rosin, its soon-decaying body would allow so much caustic fluid as to possibly destroy the rosin coating it.]

Anyway, during this time of forest fire or whatever heat-source, the sticky hot mass of pure rosin ran downwards and deposited itself in one or even several "waves" -- some pieces I've examined have four different "wave"sections. When carefully separated along these laminations, each deposited layer's rounded and drippy surface is clearly visible and each exhibits a perfect glassiness; there is no weathering on any revealed surface. It is as if each separate wave rehardened so quickly that there was no stickiness to attract anything nearby onto or into that surface before the next running hot deluge of Amber resin descended from somewhere above and arrived into the chamber to cover the first-- as I said, one amber lump had four separately-deposited sections. All indications show the arriving waves of hot resin came soon after each other. Curiously, interestingly, according to the perfect preservation of drips, none of these newly arriving waves of resin were hot enough to remelt the previous layer. This condition may seem odd, but it can happen easily enough. Of course, where the newly arriving resin was indeed too hot, a thorough compounding-- a welding-- between waves would then occur, and there would be no noticeable divisions or laminations within the golden lump. Rather, it would appear as a solid casting.

One of the clues to heat re-formulated coniferous resin (rosin) is its ability to harden upon cooling. This is very unlike the fresh or even partially "dried" coniferous balsam or gum, which remains soft, opaque, and sticky for many, many years within a tree ( giving it a chance to accumulate and be ready for an opportune forest fire, at which time, it all could melt like wax and come running down the tree for deposit in bug hollows). Again, and according to the visible clues, these Amber flows (like glassy lava) occurred soon after each other and continued until the cavity was either filled or mostly so. This would indicate the waves of resin arriving from distant areas of the parent tree as the heat continued somewhere above the gradually filling cavity. Of course, the cavity itself was necessarily a cooler area, where the resin could quickly harden; indicating it was at the thicker base of the parent tree, rather than the thinner and more heat sensitive upper regions.

To repeat, just basing my observations upon Pine and Spruce and Balsam-fir resin I've collected, I must figure the Amber resin was not the fresh exudate from a wound. No, what I see when I hold a piece of Amber is the melting of a "semi-dried' original tree balsam exudate. There is no indication that any shrinkage or porosity from the certain initial great loss of essential oils has occurred­ as would happen to a balsam. Thus, this resin cannot be the actual fresh balsam, as that exudate would necessarily have to immediately begin evaporating off its original essential oil--the turpentine-like fluid. The fresh exudate would have necessarily begun to shrink in size from essential oil loss, become porous and cloudy; and becoming a soft gummy skeleton of its original glassy clear but liquid self. This opaque and porous residue then waited for a heat source before re-forming into what my eyes see today as mostly pure resin. BTW, flows of this heat re-formed resin could arrive at the site of deposit in any condition of clarity, with the less-heated flows cooling into comparatively opaque layers, while the hotter layers cooled crystal-clear. Again, this same effect happens regularly when raw gummy aged Coniferous resins are heated. Of course, if a fresh Balsam is heated strongly and long enough, the essential oil will evaporate and leave the clear resin mass behind.....but this would require a lot of resin and a lot of heat. Realize that trees bleed slowly by their nature, but these bleedings do accumulate with time throughout parts of the parent tree; inside and out! Thus, a sudden heat source can accumulate different pockets of resin throughout the tree and deposit it all -- by aid of gravity and possible bug routes extending throughout the tree-- into the same larger insect-eaten out cavities near the bottom of that tree. If the entire tree is heated, resin could quickly arrive from great distances-- for instance, near the top of the tree.

[Sadly, none of my own pieces of Amber contains insects. Thus, I know there were no bug inhabitants within the tree-cavity when the heating-- likely a forest fire conflagration-- occurred. From my reading, I have found that the capture of a live bug is often clued from the elongated bubble arising from the victim's head area--- perhaps its last cry for help as the hot flowing resin encapsulated it....a sad thought to a life-long bug-lover like myself.]

Amber Being Made From Today's Trees?!

There are many commonalities twixt "our" coniferous resins and Amber. I can easily imagine today's trees producing amber-like formations.

There are those who say otherwise. I recently read a report maintaining it to be doubtful that our current crop of indigenous trees could ever produce an Amber. The brief maintained that none of our "soft-resin" trees could produce the large quantities of fresh resin needed to create such large and resistant lumps. I would agree with that synopsis but I think the key word is "fresh".

I introduced this idea above but will now offer more depth: I suppose that if one is of the thinking that Amber is the fresh exudate of a tree, rather than a re-amalgamation of its plentifully available and partially dried storage (the stuff I collect for heating and reforming), I would easily agree with this supposition. But, again, I do not see any indication of fresh exudate ever appearing to be like Amber. Even if you collect some fresh and crystal clear Spruce-balsam and place it in a container away from the elements to "dry" it will never look like heat-reconstituted resin. No. If kept in anything more than a very, very thin layer, the stuff runs, shrinks, wrinkles, cracks, and becomes opaque through contact with air within a relatively short time. Not so with the heat-processed stuff! Once its essential oils are mostly driven off by heat, the resin-- now rosin-- can be delivered and deposited into any thickness amount in a quick time frame, whereupon it hardens upon cooling, producing a crystal clear mass that will not change appreciably afterwards-- if protected from external weathering (like within the dry inner cavity of its parent-tree). For those who might wonder, resin can be hot enough to pour easily and still not cause the noticeable burn-damage to its little bug victims or plant material.

Is there a type of coniferous tree with us today that might allow its resin to be collected in a manner similar to the Amber lumps I have? That is, some tree having enough stored gum or "pitch" within it, that might easily be re-constituted by heat into rosin and then be fluidly deposited in large volumes with gravity into insect cavities within the trunk (where it might remain undisturbed for a long while)? I think so. Plenty of them! I'm not a tree-expert but I do know some things about the trees I live with. For instance, any Southern Yellow Pine will have innumerable pitch-pockets throughout its mass waiting for a fire to deliver the whole to a cavity in its base. If there is a "bug road" leading up the tree to make the means work, all the right mechanics are available for an amber launch!

Another example: there are coniferous trees such as the Balsamic Fir, which accumulate resin in thousands of small blisters around and just beneath the bark. Each of these blisters contains one to several drops of fresh Balsam. You can puncture these blisters and press on them to get the resin to exude. That is how I collect "Canada Balsam". But I've also noticed that, with time, these "pockets" of resin lose most of their essential oils and harden. Collecting (it is rather sticky but fun to collect) then heating, "remelting", this dried fir-resin results in a light and very transparent product which resembles the lightest Amber in every way excepting the later's great strength and durability. I can easily imagine a forest fire racing along, spreading its way through the foliaged limbs of these flammable Balsamic Firs. Such close fire-proximity heats the bark of the Fir enough to cause the resin nodules to begin melting and running downwards with gravity along the layer between the bark and the actual wood of the tree. And so, this running takes place beneath the bark. If any pockets were available within the wood to contain and stop the flow, the resin would necessarily accumulate and then, with cooling, quickly reharden into the cavity-shape available. The fresher exudates still containing some small amount of turps available would cool/harden into opaque layers ( micro-bubbles of gas trapped within the hardened mass), while the oldest exudate would be rather turps-free and cool into the crystal-clear layers. With this scenario, a Balsamic Fir -- as well as other Coniferous types-- could certainly produce large resin lumps similar to the Amber found today. But would these accumulations ever become as hard as Amber?

Sleeping resin...

Though it initially melted easily with moderate heat (hot enough to kill a tree but not to burn it totally), Amber rosin later became VERY resistant to the flame; it became so immune to heat that it will actually begin burning about the same time it begins melting! That's TOUGH! (and troublesome to painters wishing to take advantage of Amber's strength and qualities by melting it into hot oils. This precarious malady causes some to believe amber cannot be actually combined with oils; or, if it does combine, only a very dark product necessarily results).

There may well be something extra about the Amber rosin which fir balsam might fail to possess. Perhaps during its resting stage within the tree, Amber rosin became tough rather quickly. I mean, as noted above, once the tree rotted, why didn't the delicate parts of the Amber lumps fall to pieces with common weathering? Further, even resin protected by the sheath of a tree will still undergo dampness and acidic conditions which will immediately begin to break down its outer surface. This toughness in Amber resin, so observable to my eyes, indicates no major detrimental effects from any sort of outside-the-tree agents-- though it often has a crusty, much darker and fissured hide, which might just be the result of some original and internal tree-dampness ( I well know damp does attack the outside of common pine rosin and cause pitting and darkening).

Sunlight and weathering agents like heat and cold also break down resins. But, any slight "skin" fissuring from oxidation and dampness aside, with Amber there is no indication of the ravaging breakdown that would come from being exposed to the extremes of weather and Sunlight. So it seems the rosin became either extremely resistant to the elements within a short period of resting (after it's initial hot-filling of the cavity), or something allowed it to remain airtight and undisturbed for a VERY long time. In agreement with modern science, the second consideration is the more likely scenario. Of course, the only imaginable event which might allow this "undisturbed rest" would be the covering of the tree's standing or fallen trunk by a mud flow. Know that erosion does occur often in areas of forest fires. Weather more easily ravages the hill-sides when forest vegetation ceases to protect it. This mud-burial scenario goes along with current scientific thinking in the Amber realm: Amber was almost certainly covered by mud and, I will add for myself, it also likely remained still safely contained within the cavities of its dead and slowly rotting parent.


Amber is said to be tough and durable because it is polymerized. It is generally agreed that time-- perhaps coupled with some heating-- is the primary event which led to this polymerized state; time allowed the final micro-traces of the original essential oils to be absolutely driven from the resin mass. This is confusing to me. Personally thinking, I'm surprised by the heady pungent aroma given off from Amber, which slightly occurs with even a fast rubbing on the shirt sleeve. Curious. I'm thinking there must be something similar to an essential oil still within the stuff if I can smell it. What's more, an oily essence is certainly driven from Amber while heating it, and this happens well before any actual burning. Resins, no matter the age and hardness, will still give off fumes of essence while cooking. Any thorough heating will accomplish the same effect as to drive essential oil from whatever the type of resin. As fact, I used to do this as a normal processing step by taking the Spruce resin, etc. I'd collected to a heating of 600 degree F. and higher. The brittle material created was far from being as tough as Amber; it would still break easily! Further, curiously, though the cooled and hardened Spruce resin was firm and not tacky to the touch, if I pulverized some between my fingers it quickly became very sticky from the 98 degrees of my hand ...and this occurred no matter how long I heated it.

Of course, Amber powder will not show this same stickiness. Something else IS at work here; the amber rosin's sticky susceptibility to heat gets weaker and weaker with treatment from Father Time. As this stickiness recedes, a toughness and strength enters the resin. And it probably doesn't take millions of years to set in: I remember reading about a certain covered bridge built in the 19th century and made of resinous Southern pine. In the 1960's repairmen found the wood so toughened they couldn't cut it with their saws. Another example I recently found on the web: a certain Southern log cabin built in the 1700's has become extremely hard due to the internal resin-content! Apparently, Spruce or Pine resin can indeed get much tougher with age. But how?

Drying Oils As a possible Ingredient to Amber

It occurs to my aging mind that another of nature's products that is durable and lasting and non-brittle might be key to the eventual perfect hardening of my Spruce resin into an amber-like material. Drying oils have been used for centuries because they provide tough films and give protection from the elements. Like resins, oils also polymerize and both resins and oils do have the ability to combine chemically. I suspect some sort of drying oil in slight quantity may be a natural constituent of Amber and this oil, dried or polymerized, might provide the missing link to the toughness-equation. It is possible even if a drying oil was not natural to a resin's make-up, there are still ways this oil might have become a part of the resin-mix. For example, pine oil found in the bark of the tree might corrupt the hot resin as both were heated in proximity to each other. This is an interesting idea to me as hot resin combines with drying oils and I must think a certain combo of common Pine, Spruce, Fir, or Larch resin and oil would eventually become a more perfect and lasting amalgam than either alone. This has been often shown in the history of oil Painting where the Old Master's tough paint was maintained to have resins cooked into the oils used in painting-- and, be aware, some of these resins were common soft Coniferous resins. If there is a quantity of drying oil naturally bound up with the resin of Amber, it must be very slight. For instance, I found common spruce rosin will float in the same salted water as Amber by the mere heat-combination of Linseed oil with the rosin. The quantity necessary was about 5% oil to the rosin.

BTW, as I mentioned before now, Amber melts just prior to burning. The apparent same happens to a dried paint-film made from a drying oil, like Linseed. Realize, there are natural oils available within a rotting tree and such oils can slowly penetrate and combine with available resins. Experiments done as early as the 19th century show linseed oil can actually penetrate Amber without heating. It is a slow process but then again, resting dormant in its cavity, the initially weak amber rosin had 'all the time in the world' to imbibe chemical substances from its rotting organic surroundings. Interestingly, as an aside, this impregnation of oils into the amber rosin would effectively "wash" and dissipate such contaminates as "bug-juice"-- that oily goo all critters contain. Realize, you won't see an oily spot surrounding captured critters within the amber lumps. Where did it all go? It was "washed" out by the surrounding oils within the sleeping resin's burial place! There would be plenty of this oil available, too. I can imagine other forms of vegetation likely propagated the areas after the forest fire (or whatever the heat calamity) decimated the region. Such vegetation would have been buried in the same mud flows along with the coniferous tree logs; the whole mass, through rotting, would have doubtless produced great amounts of oils --and all would be capable of combining with the sleeping resin.

And so I ask again, might such oil and resin combinations, plus Father Time, be the true reason for Amber's plastic-like hardness?

In Summation, concerning Amber, I recognize it as the following:

A hard plastic-like material stronger than anything in its class, made by ancient balsam-forming trees. However, amber was not a simple balsamic exudate from the tree. Instead, the amber was made by the heat-reforming of already-produced and available stores of aged or slightly aged balsamic formations within the tree itself. The resin (rosin) that survived to become amber was that stuff flowing downwards inside the tree and not without the tree. This heat reforming of the balsam into a purer hot fluid and flowing rosin accumulated within bug-hollowed-out areas mostly in the base of the parent tree. The method of heating was likely a forest fire and the location of the parent trees was likely a hillside where erosional forces might come into play quickest allowing the eventual perfect burial of the dead and later-fallen trees. I believe the tough nature of the amber resin ensued within years, perhaps centuries, but not necessarily millennia. I believe the drying oils and other chemicals available within the parent tree & other organic sources united with the amber resin and allowed a toughness not attainable otherwise.

I also believe it possible amber-generating formations are still inherently available to our "modern" trees, and under the same conditions noted above, amber-like resin-formations can result. In that vein, I might propose the study of Pines, balsamic trees, and other conifers buried after forest fires in the past hundred/s years.

Copal Or Amber?

There are a variety of hard resins also dug from the ground which are not currently and universally accepted as meeting the general characteristics of Amber. These resins are termed Copals to differentiate them from Ambers. I must decribe these resins as hard but brittle-- not like my Baltic amber, which is much more tough and plastic-like. Whereas Baltic Amber is thought to have originated from a certain sort of pine tree, many copals come from Leguminous trees called Hymenaea. These trees have broad leaves and bear their seeds in pods (like a pea for instance). Hymenaea trees produced those copals we know of as Congo copal, Sierra Leone copal, Colombian (Santander) copal, Inhambane, and Zanzibar copal. Retinite amber, mentioned above, also appears to have come from a Legume-type Hymenaea tree ; and, for years, it was not considered to be an amber. Today, it is accepted as such.

But, in similarity to Baltic amber, there are some other copals that do come from certain coniferous trees known as Agathis pines-- members of the Auraucaria family. These pines produce an amazing light golden resin that is unlike any North American or European pine. I personally think of these pines as "super pines" due to the quick strength that overtakes the gum soon after exudation. Perhaps Baltic amber originated from these type pines. I cannot say....though I have recently read there is a similar 'fingerprint' detected through chemical analysis between the Agathis pine exudates and Baltic amber. [I'll tell you, though, the Agathis resins --on the market today as Kauri, Manilla, and Pontianak gums--smell rather pleasantly balsamic when cooked, offering no similarity at all to the horrid pungent aroma of Baltic Amber. In fact, no other resin I've met up with smells as bad as Baltic amber! Thankfully, the pungent smell goes away shortly after making the amber varnish.]

Copals are assumed to be much "younger" than Amber, and it is said that their essential oils are still present (thus, they are considered un-polymerized) causing them to be supposedly easier to melt and allowing some better solubility with common agents such as alcohol and Acetone. In appearance, Copals often look like Amber, but most are easier to scratch (Zanzibar copal has a typical "goose-flesh" hide. I cannot say for certain, but this bumpy outer appearance may be attributable to the side-walls of the bug-eaten cavities within the parent tree). Further, a slight tackiness is apparent when a bit of alcohol is applied to the surface of Copal and allowed to dry.

Some experts say copal is on its way to eventually becoming Amber. I dunno. It appears to me Copal will never become as perfect as Baltic Amber, no matter the age, and that these two resins are just different. I am referring to the hard aged buried copals that seem to have come about through the same means as amber; copals such as Congo and Zanzibar. As I said earlier, one copal now accepted as amber is Dominican Retinite, which came from the pod-bearing (leguminous) Hymenaea tree in that Republic. Curiously, though, such hard copals appear to be also caused by forest fire-type heatings. In fact, some samples of these hard copals show actual charring from the fire.

One copal I've tried is thought by some geologists to be very ancient--something like two-million years old. It's sold as Santander Colombian Copal. Some call it "near amber" or "young amber". Like retinite, Santander is thought to have come from a pod-bearing tree. Some say it may be also millions of years old. I use it for making resin-oil varnish and it dries exceedingly tough, too. In its natural state, it seems to be just as hard as Baltic Amber, but time and sunlight seem to discolor and abraid it more quickly than amber. It is also much more brittle than amber, shattering with the same hammer-blow that would bounce off Baltic amber. Yes, it is very tough stuff and in some ways and means, it is more difficult to combine into oils than Baltic Amber. But this Santander-- and other hard copals-- still gets sticky with a touch-drop of alcohol. Another thing: it somewhat physically resembles amber in that it looks like it, too, was formed inside as opposed to outside the parent tree. Like Amber, it seems to have reached a fairly strong nature early on and didn't need "millions" of years to gain such strength. BTW, the aged copals I've tried also float in salted water just like Baltic Amber....yet copal is different in other ways.

As a free thinker, I suppose it my duty to pass certain judgements regarding differentiations betwixt what is Amber and what is Copal. My own thoughts are that what I buy as Baltic Amber is simply a bit tougher in every way and method tried from the Copal I've "played" with. Entertaining my theory about drying oil combining with or being a strong part of Amber, I would suspect the difference twixt Copal and Amber is not due to the relative ages (surely Amber did not achieve its perfect toughness from such a tremendous time interval-- i.e., millions of years!) so much as the differing chemical make-up....perhaps Copal simply remains dissolvable by alcohol or perhaps it contains a different and weaker drying oil constituent. I cannot say.... but I will mention some types of Copal do seem to have a drying oil content. Like I said, Santander Copal floats in salt water like Baltic Amber.

BTW, copal, when aged and hard, is often referred to as "fossilized" like Amber. However, the bugs found trapped within these old hard Copals are still extant to our planet. The bugs found in what is regarded as true amber are extinct.

Me, I do not consider either Copal or Amber as being fossilized. Each seems to be what it most always was and nothing has replaced it. Obviously, it has morphed from its intended duty, which was that of protecting and sealing the parent tree. Sure, it was buried in the ground and things around it did change, i.e., become mineralized, like as with ancient sea shells and flora. But this resin was so tough and resistant to rotting, that nothing actually replaced it; it has indeed merely remained itself over extreme amounts of time. It's now a hard resin, not a soft resin. It has remained clear and transparent even while buried in darkness. [Some experts say it will cause oil varnishes to turn dark. That would seem very unlikely! If the hard resin varnish is truly concocted with copal or amber (and many were not), I must suspect what causes paint layers containing oil varnishes to yellow slightly when kept in darkness is their oil-content-- not their Amber or Copal content. This brings up.....]

Amber Used as a painting Ingredient

Prized for carving, beadwork, and bug encapsulation, amber would eventually be tried in other ways. From recorded time, resins were melted into various substances, such as wax and oils, to try and improve those agents in some desired manner. The wise ancients, certainly realizing amber-- though dug from the ground or found lying along river banks and ocean beaches -- was another sort of tree resin, would most definitely engender trials with its use for oil varnish making. Indeed, I ask myself, how could they resist?

What I have found out about combining amber with oil to make Renaissance-style hard-resin varnish is this: the combination seems to better both the oil and the resin. A very permanent material is created-- perhaps this particular oil varnish is the most perfect means of paint-making ever devised. Whatever the faults of oils and resins by themselves, they appear to be cancelled and negated by the happy combination. For example, during the high-temp heating, the oil actually loses its nasty side-effect of latent yellowing. As for the resin, the amber seems to be protected by the wearing effects of oxygen and exposure by the toughened and impenetrable oil. Thus, the resin remains non-yellowing and so does the oil. Paint made by mixing pigment into this pure varnish does not appear to change in any optical way. Such paint remains perfectly preserved even when kept in darkness.

James Groves, July, 1999

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