As you can see from the picture, there are many types of amber, and these are often confused with each other, as well as with ambergris, copal and jet. In this illustrated guide, you will learn about the interesting world of amber, and how to tell various ambers apart from each other. The spiritual, metaphysical and magickal uses of these materials is vast, and understanding their differences will greatly enhance your workings.
Take a close look at the picture by clicking on it to open the full size image with notations. You can click on any of the images in this and other PaganPath articles to begin this same slide show effect. Later in this extended article there will be references the various types shown, and you will see magnifications of several of the "stones" displayed.
Amber was once called Elektron by the Greeks because when rubbed it produces a static charge. This is very much like when you rub a birthday balloon on your hair and it clings with static, but imagine how magical this must have seemed in a world without plastic or synthetic carpeting, and at a time before our more modern understanding of electricity and magnetism.
Amber has been used magically in every geographical region that it is found, and in most every time period. It is considered an energizer (much like dragon's blood resin or mandrake root) in that it adds "oomph" to your magical focus and intent. Now this amber, referred to in most ancient writing, is the hard amber used for beads. It is often called "fossilized, but that isn't exactly right. This is because minerals do not replace the organic parts like they would with say a fossilized bone, or a fern impression in a rock.
Amber is a material, usually from extinct species of trees, several million years old, that has cross-linked and polymerized to become quite hard, and is not "fossilized" as some might say.
Amber is entirely organic, and the actual resin (from an extinct tree) has not changed much over the millions of years it took to become the amber we know today. This hard amber is the same type that is often found with extinct critters imbedded in it, such as insects, small vertebrates, etc.
Because the amber resin seals out oxygen from these trapped critters (they got trapped when the amber was still soft sticky tree sap) it may be possible to extract DNA from the imbedded critters. There are currently several laboratories working on this, and you may remember that it was fictionalized in the movie Jurrasic Park.
Air bubbles, gas and water droplets can also be found in amber. This, and the critters, make it more valuable for jewelry and more valuable to science. By testing the air, water, gasses, etc. within ancient pieces of amber, we can tell how much our environment has changed.
The first picture of this article shows a somewhat triangular piece of true amber on the bottom row, in the middle. In the , you can see an embedded stick in this piece (the dark line crossing from the top left to the bottom right) and an entrapped insect. The insect has caused the amber to form what is known as a "sunburst" or "starburst", a rounded or fan-like halo surrounding it. In the center of this sunburst is the insect, and a small bubble of trapped gasses.
Because embedded items make amber more valuable, there are many fakes on the market. Sometimes amber colored plastic is melted and cooled at specific temperatures to create the alligator patterns that sometimes occur on the outside of natural amber. Sunburst fractures and other features of true amber can also be duplicated. Insects, scorpions or small invertebrates are sometimes included within these imitations.
You may hear that amber is fossilized pine sap, and although it does have a somewhat pine like smell when burned, it really comes from various extinct tropical broad leaved trees and conifers. Only a few of these trees were even related to pines.
Although amber is found all over the world, wherever the hardened resin from certain extinct plants is found, it has only survived in a couple dozen locals in large enough quantities to be mined.
Amber washed down rivers and streams as trees fell, and is now most often found on beaches. Because the specific gravity of amber is just a little higher than water, it tends wash ashore. It is well preserved over millions of years in the sediment at the bottom of oceans and seas, and because it is buoyant (but doesn't float) it gets stirred up by the waves and reaches shores and beaches.
Large quantities wash up in the Baltic Sea after storms, and you will often see "Baltic Amber" for sale at shops. The appearance of amber on beaches lent tangibility to the ancient legend of amber being the rays of the setting sun becoming solidified on the ocean waves. Amber is often associated with the sun, and is combined in Craft necklaces with Jet, a black resin with moon associations. Jet is pictured in the lower right corner of the picture at the beginning of this article.
Also in the first picture is a pyramid shaped piece of amber composite. To your left is a magnification of this type of amber, also known as reconstituted amber. This is a partially genuine, and partially faked type of amber made by melting true amber and molding it. True amber, usually from pieces and flakes that would otherwise be too small for jewelry, is melted down and molded. Most amber spheres and larger shapes are created in this way, and would otherwise be unaffordable to most people if they were carved from a solid piece of amber.
Amber composite still maintains many of the magickal properties and energies of true amber, but this varies from specimen to specimen. Some of it can be just as powerful as true amber, some has a unique energy signiture all its own, and still other pieces have very little magical use. You will have to use your intuition (as always) if you decide to use reconstructed amber. It is helpful to select these items in person in order to sense their energies.
Reconstituted, or composite amber is very popular because it is abundant and less expensive than true amber. It can also be formed into wonderful pieces such as spheres, boxes, combs, pendants, pyramids, obelisks, etc. Normally such pieces made of true amber would be prohibitively expensive for most of us. However, some unscrupulous merchants do try to pass off reconstructed amber as true amber, and will price the imposter pieces accordingly as if they were true amber.
Notice the angular shadows in this picture, many are just below the surface. Rather than circular sunburst patters you'd see in true amber, you can see a halo of the edges of pieces and flakes that were melted together. This particular specimen does have some sunburst patters deep within it (not visible in the photo), however these are very symetrical and do not have any gas bubble, insect or debris visible in their centers. These inclusions are normally what cause sunbursts in true amber, but in this composite piece they were formed by controlled cooling and reheating.
At the top right hand corner of the picture, you can see the rounded shape of an air bubble that was intentionally trapped to enhance the natural appearance of this specimen.
The first picture in this article displays another interesting piece of true amber from the author's collection. In the middle of the bottom row, between the reddish coral beads and the triangular true amber is a small round specimin. To your right you will see the magnified photograph of this piece (click on it to enlarge).
You can see vertical fluctuations in coloration, called banding. These color variations are formed by sap flow when the amber was just flowing tree sap. Banding such as this can be an indication of true amber. You can also see a natural gas bubble in about the middle of the photo, slightly to the left. A few other air bubble are also are scattered about, generally following the banding patterns.
Take your amber to the local lapidary shop, head shop, gem show, night club or even the local natural museum if you have one nearby. Expose it to the various lights they have, or to black light. It will often flouresce green/blue color. It is also soluble in alcohol and has been used medicinally.
True amber is a hard amber, and it is old. About four to five million years old. Jewelry, charms and amulets of Stone Age amber can still be found, and are frequently displayed in museums. Amber was probably one of the first materials made into beads, charms, amulets and adornments. Archaeologists propose that this is because it is easily worked with hand tools, and readily found without mining.
Although you can burn this type of amber, and the ancients often did, I personally feel it is wrong to do so. True amber is a non-renewable, natural gift. Is any special occasion you may have really special enough to deprive future generations from experiencing the wonder of amber?
In long past and ignorant days, I did try burning a very small flake of true amber just to see, or rather, just to smell. Honesty, it was not that impressive as far as fragrances go. Copal blanco, other types of amber (see below) and benzoin are far more impressive, and much more renewable. The true amber I burned had an overtone of clear, pine like scent, and an undertone of tar-like plastic scent. Since then, I've come to understand that this is normal, and perhaps when bathing was less popular, the scent was preferred to the odor of exuberant bacterial growth.
True amber is wonderful and magical to keep around without burning it, and it is becoming more and more rare and costly. It takes millions of years for amber to transform from tree sap to the amber we use, and the plants it originated from are now extinct.
The photograph at the beginning of this article illustrates many types of amber. Amber is often referred to as a resin, and there are many types of resins. Frankincense, myrrh, dragons blood, opopanax, copal, benzoin, mastic and many others are also resins.
A common factor among these resins are. The types, quantities and activities of these terpenes are primarily responsible for the odor of these resins.
Copal Amber is yet another type of hard amber. It is younger, and softer than the jewelry type discussed above but it can also be used in jewelry. The red-orange beads on the bottom left of the first picture in this article are copal amber. It is frequently made into beads and is unfortunately sometimes marketed as "Baltic Amber". It is much more common and should be more affordable than true amber. Magically, it has properties somewhat like a cross between copal and amber, so I believe it is aptly named.
When I say copal amber is younger, I mean that copal amber is only several thousand years old, rather than several million years old like Baltic amber and other hard ambers. In geological time, this is "baby amber" and its energy reflects this.
Copal Amber has not completely cross-linked and polymerized, and when it comes into contact with alcohol, perfume or other solvents it becomes sticky. It will melt and liquefy easily under heat, whereas the older ambers usually soften somewhat and blacken first. Copal is sometimes made into traditional varnishes.
A note to botanists and herbalists, this is not the "copal resin" from the trees in Australia and South America that produce sap which hardens quickly and is not the copal resin used for incense.
Jet, also known as lignite, also has organic origins. It is considered a mineraloid and was formed hundreds of millions of years ago. Wood (from trees like the monkey puzzle tree in Whitby, and coniferous Araucariaceae in other areas) and water under pressure and over long periods of time create jet. Salt water produced harder jets like Whitby, and fresh water caused softer jets like those found in Russia and China.
Although the Pagan use of jet from Germany may be older from a Northern European perspective, all types of jets have been found carved and fashioned into jewelry, charms and religious artifacts in many areas of the world. There are examples from Germany circa 10,000 BCE and carved jewelry/beads from around 1400 BCE. Neo-Pagans, Wiccans and Witches often use all types of jet for magick and spiritual purposes.
Like amber, jet is also warm to the touch and will form a static charge when rubbed. It is sometimes found washed up on beaches (such as in Whitby) much like amber, and was sometimes thought to be a black amber. Some still refer to jet as "Witches' Amber". Although the wood it came from is similarly resinous, it was a wood (jet) rather than the resin (amber) that formed the specimen. On close inspection and magnification, you can sometimes see the wood structure and even growth rings within jet.
Jet pairs well with amber for charms, amulets and talismans. This combination is often used by Witches, and holds very special magickal energies and is deeply symbolic. Whitby jet is known to be a particularly high quality, hard jet, appropriate for beads and jewelry. However, there are exceptionally fine types of jet found nearly all over the world.
Geologists call both Amber and Copal Amber Resinites. So what are resins? And what is Ambergris?
Lets start with Ambergris because it too washes up on beaches like Baltic Amber, but it's a very different thing. If you keep a pet bird, perhaps you've given it a cuttlebone for beak rubbing. This is an abrasive, sharp bone that is a main part of the diet of the sperm whale (Physeter catodon) along with sea mollusks. So what does all this have to do with ambergris? Everything!
Sperm whales eat sharp cuttlefish. They produce a secretion in their intestinal lining to protect themselves from the sharp bones. This is an oily substance that floats, and often coats fishing nets or washes ashore.
It smells strange, very sweet and deep, and is the basis (or rather was the basis . . . more on this later) for many of the finest perfumes in the world. It is a powerful fixative which decreases how volatile other oils are, and makes fragrance last longer.
This is rather hard to explain, but think of it this way. You mix rosemary oil (very volatile and evaporates quickly) with rose absolute (somewhat volatile and evaporates moderately) and patchouli essential oil (many chemicals in the oil are not as volatile and evaporate slower). You apply this new perfume and voila! First you smell like rosemary for an hour (top note), then you smell like roses (middle note)and by the end of the day you're just wearing patchouli (base note).
Adding ambergris to this mixture balances everything out so that you have the combination scent, a harmony of all the ingredients together, and so it persists for a longer period of time. Please remember this is a very rough explanation and more details will be found in other articles and courses about perfumery and incense making here on PaganPath.com.
Don't use ambergris!
Why? Well lets think about this, we have a substance that is worth more than its weight in gold. The sperm whales are harvested (that means killed) to get more ambergris, because not enough of it floats to the surface naturally to appease the world's appetite.
Now ambergris is illegal in many places, as well it should be, and just possessing it can be a criminal offense. Also, harvesting it from live whales is certainly illegal in most parts of the world. But how do you know the ambergris you bought that was supposedly collected from the beach really was collected naturally, and not through slaughter of an endangered species? You don't, not unless you were there when it was found.
But here's the good news! Ambergris can now be made in the laboratory. Sure, I know what you're thinking, "that's not natural!". And you'd be right. But all things on this planet are of this planet, and brewing together molecules in a vat isn't too far a cry from brewing a potion in your cauldron.
There are many types of synthetic ambergris, however if you are looking for the "real synthetic thing" (if there is such a thing, lol) then you want "Nature Identical".
Nature Identical oils and chemicals are just that, identical to those found in nature. A certificate of analysis will show the exact same composition and the molecular structure is the same. The bad new is that a real nature identical is also price identical, but with ambergris a gram of the white crystalline powder is enough to strongly scent a gallon of perfume.
Civet and musk are other precious scents obtained from animals that also have nature identical versions. (And no, Jovan musk is not a nature identical.)
All of the major perfume houses in the world now use synthetic ambergris out of consideration for the survival of the endangered sperm whales, and more importantly, because they can guarantee a consistent fragrance. Although the price of nature identical and genuine is about the same, perfume houses rely on the stability and dependability of their formulas. Customers of a branded perfume expect each bottle to be consistent in fragrance. Because of the impurities found in many natural substances, the fragrance of each is not always the same.
There are a few places you can still find true ambergris, but again I would strongly discourage this. Ambergris is from the French term "ambre gris" meaning "grey amber" and it was once thought to be unsolidified amber. So, if you were confused about amber vs. ambergris, you are certainly not the first person this has happened to!
So what about these resins and what is that smelly amber resin stuff?
The amber resin sold in the incense section of most shops is a combination of many ingredients. It can also be used for jewelry, but with a perfume function as well. There are open woven lockets that are made to hold this soft resin so that you can smell good and look stylin' at the same time.
But the main use of this soft amber is not for jewelry, it is for fragrance. It can be stored in boxes with holes in them to perfume the air like a potpourri or sachet. It can be burned on charcoals or mixed with other herbs, a binder and some saltpetre to make an incense. It can be rubbed onto the skin (it will often melt at low temperatures or skin temperature, but can also cause skin irritations for some people). However, no matter what you do with this soft, fragrant amber, don't ever let it come into contact with any type of hard amber or jet. The solid amber fragrance will react with true amber and jet, and make it sticky as it dissolves it.
This soft, fragrant amber is often called "Himalayan Amber" or "India Amber" or sometimes even "Mysore Amber". Most are composed of liquid benzoin resinoiid, sandalwood, copal, patchouli, myrrh, synthetic ambergris and other resins. These are melted together and then allowed to solidify. As they solidify, a semi-crystalline structure will form, similar to the crystalline look created in some soy candles.
Various recipes and the techniques of making amber resin into the crystalline substance you buy are closely guarded secrets, often passed down through generations in families. The ingredients in this type of amber vary widely depending on who makes it. Think of it this way, there are a thousand types of salads, from pasta to spinach or even jello, but they are all called "salad". This type of amber is the same way in that the recipe and ingredients vary widely.
Some amber is made by using ghee (clarified butter) and mixing it with essential oils. The oils included are usually Mysore sandalwood, patchouli, liquid benzoin and other fragrance and essential oils. Almost none of the types of amber resin available contain true, hard amber or amber resinite, but they were probably originally made have a similar fragrance when burned.
Nowadays, many types of soft amber resin smell far better than true amber resinite when burned. Even more important, they are normally made of renewable ingredients.
"Red Amber" is usually the type made with ghee, and was at one time considered to be superior in fragrance. However, the ghee content makes it smell like burning food when it is used for incense and it is often not as sweet as honey amber, celestial amber, gold amber or yellow amber. It is a wonderful perfume resin, but does not perform as well in incense due to the ghee. The price of red amber is usually reflective more of popular trends than of the actual ingredients and it is interesting to note that red Baltic amber also draws a higher price. Maybe red is the new selling color.
The coloration, origin and name of amber resin are no longer a good indication of its quality. Red Amber Resin - Mysore Amber Resin or other names have become marketing gimmicks more than informative titles since around 1995. Many of the golden amber resins available today easily surpass much of the red amber resin sold, but it all depends on the recipe and your preferences!
Usually, I use the term Amber Resin to refer to the fragrant soft substance, and call hard amber one of its many, more specific names like: Copal Amber - Baltic Amber - or Amber Resinite.
The picture at the beginning of this article shows three different types of fragrant amber resin. These are the very top three from left to right in that photograph, and are labeled accordingly. Please note that the red amber in this picture is much lighter in color than most red amber due to the reflection of light from my scanner and the small quantity I still had for the scan.
Final Summary & Notes
The smelly chunks of soft amber are usually guilt free and have nothing to do with sperm whales. They are all interrelated though and some people think that Amber resinite, some Amber resins and Ambergris smell similar. They do share a sweet, woody sort of "old library book" note, but once you have them all side by side they don't seem any more similar than the "green" scents of rosemary, mint and sage.
Amber Resinite or hard Baltic amber resin was once used medicinally and in food. Amber resin, the smelly stuff, tastes horrible and should not be eaten. Ambergris is not a food substance either, and the amber resinite once used medicinally and in food doesn't offer any medicinal properties that cannot be found other and more practical places like renewable herbs.
All types of amber have an important place in magic, from incense to jewelry. But knowing the difference between amber resin, amber resinite and ambergris is essential, so now you know!