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 Varieties of Baltic Amber
--Krystyna Leciejewicz
Rough Baltic Amber Nuggets in Raw Form
Baltic amber comes in a wealth of varieties produced by the great differences in the degree of its translucency and colour--from pale yellow through numerous shades of yellow to white, bluish, greenish, beige and brown. These are among the factors which make amber such a highly desirable and valued raw material in the folk art and jewellery trades. 

     Baltic amber varieties can be divided into primary and secondary. The fundamental criterion in distinguishing the primary varieties is the internal structure of the amber, which constitutes the key to establishing its color and translucency, as well as the degree to which it is contaminated by organic inclusions. The translucency and colour of amber depend on the amount of air bubbles contained within a given piece of amber and their distribution.

     Among the rich collection of Baltic amber housed in the Museum of the Earth, the following primary varieties are particularly noteworthy:

     Transparent amber - this variety does not contain any air bubbles or only single, fairly large ones measuring 0.5-2.0 mm in diameter.
     Translucent amber - parts of which contain large concentrations of air bubbles producing a clouded appearance.
     Opaque yellow amber - the number of air bubbles in this variety reaches 25,000/mm2, it's colour ranging across all shades of yellow and beige.
     Opaque white amber - containing up to 900,000 air bubbles per mm2, with an internal structure which has the appearance of solid foam. The color of this variety ranges from white to blue.

     Amber contaminated by organic matter and wood splinters forms a separate category among the primary varieties. The types of amber belonging to this category are known as the earth varieties, even though they have nothing to do with soil, or are sometimes referred to as clinker. These varieties are classified independently of their internal structure. Earth amber frequently contains numerous air bubbles which were produced during the decaying process and sometimes also contains plant and animal inclusions. Earth amber is usually either brown or greenish in color.

     The internal structure and colour of primary varieties of amber is subject to change dependent on air, humidity and light levels and other weathering processes which can turn it from yellow to redo r orange. Changes in its internal structure lead to the appearance of numerous cracks within any given piece, resulting in what is referred to as a sugar-crystal structure. Weathered amber is also covered by a "cortex" or "crust" making its surface coarse or uneven. The greatest degree of weathering is displayed by amber which has lain in deposits above the surface of the water table for a prolonged period of time. Similarly, pieces of amber which make up part of an old collection, or those which have been exposed to the effects of light, as is often the case with display items, change color from yellow to red and orange, or from white to yellowish.

     In the drainage-basin of the River Narew, where the tradition of collecting and working amber goes back to the fifteenth century, a wide-ranging terminology is used to describe amber, taking into account its color and level of translucence. In his Pocket Dictionary of Polish Amber Varieties, author A. Chetnick brings together eighty names for varieties of amber, which refer not only to their color and translucence, but also to the character of their surfaces, their degree of weathering, provenance and even their suitability for working and their role in folk rituals.

     Chetnick makes the following distinctions between varieties of transparent amber: gems- entirely transparent, pale yellow amber; flames- reddish amber whose colour is reminiscent of fire; honey- honey-coloured amber; clouded- amber which has concentrations of opaque areas which resemble clouds in a clear sky.

      Translucent amber includes nebular and woolly varities in which the opaque sections appear in strips or concentrations reminiscent of fluffy clouds or strands of wool.

     Varieties of yellow, opaque amber include beige amber- a reference to its colour- and cabbage-leaf amber- where pale yellow or white streaks appear distributed on a darker yellow background giving the effect of veins on a cabbage leaf; patchy amber- in which different shades of yellow or white form distinct patches of colour; marble and mosaic amber- where multicolored portions are arranged in patterns resembling marble or mosiaics; and finally mixed amber which consists of several varieties rolled into one piece. Grainy and striped amber is a name given when sections of various colours and degrees of translucence form stripes or rings which resemble the grain of wood.

     Opaque, white varieties include chalky amber- chalky white in colour; bone amber- predominantly white with hint of yellow; giving it the appearance of ivory; and unique specimens of blue amber. These contain such a large amount of air bubbles that seen under an electron microscope, they have the appearance of solid foam.

     Amber belonging to the earth category, i.e. that which has been contaminated by plant matter, is divided into the following varieties: dappled- containing small particles of grey of black plant detritus; transparent earth amber- containing detritus particles and large, single air bubbles which are clearly visible against a transparent, yellowish-brown background; green amber, which has a greenish hue; and mixed earth amber- which contains fragments of opaque, yellow amber contaminated with interspersed plant matter.

   Sugar-crystal amber, so-called because of its granular appearance and red amber, are easily distinguished amongst the secondary varieties of this mineral.
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Varieties of Baltic Amber to identify
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