Is fossilized tree resin, which has been appreciated for its color and natural beauty since Neolithic times. Much valued from antiquity to the present as a gemstone, amber is made into a variety of decorative objects. Amber is used in jewelry. It has also been used as a healing agent in folk medicine.
There are five classes of amber, defined on the basis of their chemical constituents. Because it originates as a soft, sticky tree resin, amber sometimes contains animal and plant material as inclusions. Amber occurring in coal seams is also called resinite, and the term ambrite is applied to that found specifically within New Zealand coal seams.
The English word amber derives from Arabic ʿanbar (cognate with Middle Persian ambar, via Middle Latin ambar and Middle French ambre. The word was adopted in Middle English in the 14th century as referring to what is now known as ambergris (ambre gris or "grey amber"), a solid waxy substance derived from the sperm whale. In the Romance languages, the sense of the word had come to be extended to Baltic amber (fossil resin) from as early as the late 13th century. At first called white or yellow amber (ambre jaune), this meaning was adopted in English by the early 15th century. As the use of ambergris waned, this became the main sense of the word.
The two substances ("yellow amber" and "grey amber") conceivably became associated or confused because they both were found washed up on beaches. Ambergris is less dense than water and floats, whereas amber is too dense to float, though less dense than stone.
The classical names for amber, Latin electrum and Ancient Greek ἤλεκτρον (ēlektron), are connected to a term ἠλέκτωρ (ēlektōr) meaning "beaming Sun". According to myth, when Phaëton son of Helios (the Sun) was killed, his mourning sisters became poplar trees, and their tears became elektron, amber.
Amber is discussed by Theophrastus in the 4th century BC, and again by Pytheas (c. 330 BC) whose work "On the Ocean" is lost, but was referenced by Pliny the Elder, according to whose The Natural History (in what is also the earliest known mention of the name Germania):
Pytheas says that the Gutones, a people of Germany, inhabit the shores of an estuary of the Ocean called Mentonomon, their territory extending a distance of six thousand stadia; that, at one day's sail from this territory, is the Isle of Abalus, upon the shores of which, amber is thrown up by the waves in spring, it being an excretion of the sea in a concrete form; as, also, that the inhabitants use this amber by way of fuel, and sell it to their neighbors, the Teutones.
Earlier Pliny says that a large island of three days' sail from the Scythian coast called Balcia by Xenophon of Lampsacus, author of a fanciful travel book in Greek, is called Basilia by Pytheas. It is generally understood to be the same as Abalus. Based on the amber, the island could have been Heligoland, Zealand, the shores of Bay of Gdansk, the Sambia Peninsula or the Curonian Lagoon, which were historically the richest sources of amber in northern Europe. It is assumed that there were well-established trade routes for amber connecting the Baltic with the Mediterranean (known as the "Amber Road"). Pliny states explicitly that the Germans export amber to Pannonia, from where it was traded further abroad by the Veneti. The ancient Italic peoples of southern Italy were working amber, the most important examples are on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Siritide to Matera. Amber used in antiquity as at Mycenae and in the prehistory of the Mediterranean comes from deposits of Sicily.
Pliny also cites the opinion of Nicias, according to whom amber:
is a liquid produced by the rays of the sun; and that these rays, at the moment of the sun's setting, striking with the greatest force upon the surface of the soil, leave upon it an unctuous sweat, which is carried off by the tides of the Ocean, and thrown up upon the shores of Germany.
Besides the fanciful explanations according to which amber is "produced by the Sun", Pliny cites opinions that are well aware of its origin in tree resin, citing the native Latin name of succinum (sūcinum, from sucus "juice"). He writes:
Amber is produced from a marrow discharged by trees belonging to the pine genus, like gum from the cherry, and resin from the ordinary pine. It is a liquid at first, which issues forth in considerable quantities, and is gradually hardened [...] Our forefathers, too, were of opinion that it is the juice of a tree, and for this reason gave it the name of "succinum" and one great proof that it is the produce of a tree of the pine genus, is the fact that it emits a pine-like smell when rubbed, and that it burns, when ignited, with the odour and appearance of torch-pine wood.
He also states that amber is also found in Egypt and in India, and he even refers to the electrostatic properties of amber, by saying that "in Syria the women make the whorls of their spindles of this substance, and give it the name of harpax [from ἁρπάζω, "to drag"] from the circumstance that it attracts leaves towards it, chaff, and the light fringe of tissues.”
Pliny says that the German name of amber was glæsum, "for which reason the Romans, when Germanicus Cæsar commanded the fleet in those parts, gave to one of these islands the name of Glæsaria, which by the barbarians was known as Austeravia". This is confirmed by the recorded Old High German glas and Old English glær for "amber" (c.f. glass). In Middle Low German, amber was known as berne-, barn-, börnstēn. The Low German term became dominant also in High German by the 18th century, thus modern German Bernstein besides Dutch Dutch barnsteen.
The Baltic Lithuanian term for amber is gintaras and Latvian dzintars. They, and the Slavic jantar or Hungarian gyanta ('resin'), are thought to originate from Phoenician jainitar ("sea-resin").
Early in the nineteenth century, the first reports of amber from North America came from discoveries in New Jersey along Crosswicks Creek near Trenton, at Camden, and near Woodbury.