Amber: Jewelry, Art, and Science

Book Review by Eric J. Hoffman


   Nancy P. S. Hopp, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2009. 144 pp, 320 color photos and drawings. Softbound, 11 x 8-1/2 inches. $29.99

   Amber is one of the very few organic gems and the only one with organic inclusions. Formed from tree resin that hardened many millions of years ago, amber was valued for adornment as far back as the Stone Age. This strange gemstone melts and burns, floats in salt water, takes a static charge, and in ancient times was worth ten times its weight in gold. Tricky to cut and difficult to set, amber may also be the most challenging gemstone to write about. Nancy Hopp, trained in gemstones, silversmithing, and jewelry appraising, has successfully met that challenge with this book.

   She begins by defining amber and showing some simple tests for distinguishing it from its many imitators and from copal (a younger cousin of amber, that is not really defined until 90 pages later). The many varieties of amber are explained and beautifully illustrated in photos of loose stones as well as others set in silver jewelry. The fascinating subject of prehistoric plant and insect inclusions is introduced, along with the first of several warnings that most examples novices will encounter are cleverly made fakes. Hopp even gives a nod to the role amber played in the popular movie Jurassic Park.

   The worldwide sources of amber are described next, including discussions of the technology (often primitive) and economics of mining and even photos taken inside of mines in the Dominican Republic. Baltic amber, although it constitutes 80% of the world’s supply, seems to receive less emphasis than Dominican. The history of amber is covered, from its first decorative use 13,000 years ago to the present. The author interweaves scientific fact with amber myths and lore in a charming way. The historical discussion is brought into the early 20th century with smoking articles (taking advantage of amber’s supposed antiseptic properties) and other objets d’art.

   The chapter “Amber Today” briefly explains carving and crafting, amber care, and how to detect the many imitators and enhancements, such as dyeing to imitate the valuable cherry amber. The amazing Russian “Amber Room” is covered in a short but well-illustrated chapter. Created in Prussia and transferred to the Russian Winter Palace as a gift in 1755, the Amber Room vanished completely during World War II. Its present location remains an unsolved mystery.

   The book’s abundant photographs are supplemented by watercolor drawings by a friend of the author to provide images where photography was not possible. Ample references are provided, including many Web sites, and these are cited liberally in the text. The writing style is informal and breezy, with some oddities such as mentioning by name each and every person who appears in the photos. Certainly this is no dry academic tome. There are more than a few typos, which should be fixed in the next printing. The book’s organization could also use a few tweaks. For example, one entire page of photos (of testing) is repeated twice, 91 pages apart.

   These few editing quibbles aside, the author has succeeded in providing a valuable introduction to amber that is fascinating to read and beautiful to look at. 


Copyright © 2009 by Eric J. Hoffman

Originally published in Adornment magazine, Vol. 8, No. 2, Sept/Oct 2009