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The English word amber derives from the Arabic 'anbar, via Medieval Latin ambar and Old French ambre. The word originally referred to a precious oil derived from the Sperm whale (now called ambergris). The sense was extended to fossil resin circa 1400, and this became the main sense as the use of ambergris waned. The two substances were confused because they both were found washed up on beaches. Ambergris is less dense than water and floats; whereas amber is less dense than stone, but too dense to float. The word "ambar" was brought to Europe by the Crusaders. In French "ambre gris" was then distinguished from "ambre jaune": ambre gris (gray amber) was ambergris; ambre jaune (yellow amber) was the fossil resin we now call amber.
Solution of the non-rectified oil (Oleum Succini non rectificatum) prepared by dry distillation of Amber. Solution of Succinic acid. C4H6O4.
Minerals; Organic Compounds; Acyclic Carbon Compounds; More Substances of Organic Origin; Oils and similar Compounds of Carbon
Peters - Marcy: New Mat. Med. Suplt. N. A. J. Hom., Aug., 1856.
Dr. F. Swoboda and Dr. P. Koenig, OEGHM, Austria, 1984/ 85
Dr. Ulrike Keim, Dr. Karl Heinz Ricken, German, 2006
Description of the substance
Amber is globally distributed, mainly in rocks of Cretaceous age or younger. Historically, the coast around Königsberg in Prussia was the world's leading source of amber. About 90% of the world's extractable amber is still located in the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia on the Baltic Sea.
The presence of insects in amber was noticed by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, and led him to theorize correctly that, at some point, amber had to be in a liquid state to cover the bodies of insects. Hence he gave it the expressive name of succinum or gum-stone, a name that is still in use today to describe succinic acid as well as succinite.
Heating amber will soften it and eventually it will burn, which is why in Germanic languages the word for amber is a literal translation of burn-Stone (nl. barnsteen, de. Bernstein, the latter of which the Polish word bursztyn derives from). Heated above 200°C, amber suffers decomposition, yielding an "oil of amber", and leaving a black residue which is known as "amber colophony", or "amber pitch"; when dissolved in oil of turpentine or in linseed oil this forms "amber varnish" or "amber lac".
Amber is a unique preservational mode, preserving otherwise unfossilizable parts of organisms; as such it is helpful in the reconstruction of ecosystems and organisms.
The chemical composition of the resin is, unfortunately, of limited utility in reconstructing the phylogenetic affinity of the resin producer.
Heated in the air, amber softens at about 215° C. (419° F.), and fuses at about 290° C. (554° F.), evolving an agreeable aromatic odor, and burning with a clear yellow flame. It can not be fused without undergoing some chemical change. By destructive distillation in a retort, amber yields first an acid liquor, which contains succinic and acetic acids; then some succinic acid is deposited in the neck of the retort, and an empyreumatic oil (oil of amber) comes over, at first thin and yellowish, afterward brown and thick; toward the end of the operation, a yellowish light sublimate is observed in the neck of the retort; this is called by Gmelin, amber-camphor. An inflammable gas is evolved during the whole time of the operation. The residue in the retort consists of a brown resin (colophonium succini). The proximate principles of amber are a volatile oil, with a strong but agreeable odor.
It was thought since the 1850s that the resin that became amber was produced by the tree Pinites succinifer, but research in the 1980s came to the conclusion that the resin originates from several species. More recently it has been proposed, on the evidence of Fourier-transform infrared microspectroscopy (FTIR) analysis of amber and resin from living trees, that conifers of the family Sciadopityaceae were responsible.