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Amber: the Jurassic Gem

Dinosaurs have been more popular than ever since their starring role in the movie Jurassic Park. A more surprising result of the movie's popularity has been a worldwide surge in demand for amber jewelry. Although amber's use in adornment is probably as old as mankind, in recent history it has had a limited market. Of course, that was before millions of people saw dinosaur DNA extracted from a mosquito trapped in amber in the movie.

Millions of people learned from the movie that amber, which is fossilized pine tree sap, is ancient and valuable, like an antique from previous history.

Demand is especially strong for amber with insects inside. "Amber is like a time capsule made and placed in the earth by nature herself," said David Federman, author of Consumer Guide to Colored Gemstones. "It has helped paleontologists reconstruct life on earth in its primal phases. More than 1,000 extinct species of insects have been identified in amber."

The two main sources of amber on the market today are the Baltic states and the Dominican Republic. Amber from the Baltic states is older, and therefore preferred on the market, but amber from the Dominican Republic is more likely to have insect inclusions. Prices of amber can range from $20 to $40,000 or more.

Fortunately for new amber enthusiasts, amber from the Baltic states is more available on the market than in previous years due to the liberalization of the economies of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The largest mine in the Baltic region is in Russia, west of Kaliningrad. Baltic amber is found in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Russia, and occasionally washed up on the shores of the Baltic Sea as far away as Denmark, Norway, and England. Other amber sources include Myanmar (formerly Burma), Lebanon, Sicily, Mexico, Romania, Germany, and Canada.

Desire for amber is nothing new. Amber artifacts dating to the Stone Age were found in what is now Germany and Denmark.

Made by the Sun

"Stone Age man imbued amber with supernatural properties and used it to wear and to worship," Mr Federman said. "Amber took on great value and significance to, among others, the Assyrians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Phoenicians, and Greeks. It never completely went out of vogue since the Stone Age. Between 1895 and 1900, one million kilograms of Baltic amber were produced for jewelry."

Many myths surround the origin of amber. Ovid writes that when Phaeton, a son of Phoebus, the sun, convinced his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky for a day, he drove too close to the earth, setting it on fire. To save the earth, Jupiter struck Phaeton out of the sky with his thunderbolts and he died, plunging out of the sky. His mother and sister turned into trees in their grief but still cried mourning him. Their tears, dried by the sun, are amber.

The Greeks called amber elektron, or sun-made, perhaps because of this story, or perhaps because it becomes electrically charged when rubbed with a cloth and can attract small particles. Homer mentions amber jewelry - earrings and a necklace of amber beads - as a princely gift in the Odyssey.

Another ancient writer, Nicias, said that amber was the juice or essence of the setting sun congealed in the sea and cast up on the shore.

The Romans sent armies to conquer and control amber producing areas. Emperor Nero was a great connoisseur of amber. During his time, wrote Roman historian Pliny, the price of an amber figurine, no matter how small, exceeded the price of a living healthy slave.

The ancient Germans burned amber as incense, so they called it bernstein, or "burn stone." Clear colorless amber was considered the best material for rosary beads in the Middle Ages due to its smooth silky feel. Certain orders of knights controlled the trade and unauthorized possession of raw amber was illegal in most of Europe by the year 1400.

What Secrets Might Amber Hold?

Could a mosquito trapped in amber hold dinosaur DNA? Most amber just isn't old enough, celebrating maybe 25 to 50 million birthdays at most. The dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period. The Jurassic period was 144 million years ago. But in 1994, Dr Raul Cano of California Polytechnic state University at San Luis Obispo, a molecular biologist, reported in the British journal Nature that he and his colleagues had extracted DNA from a weevil that was trapped in amber 120 to 135 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The amber, which was from the Lower Cretaceous period, was mined in the mountains of Lebanon south of Beirut by Aftim Acra, who has a collection of amber pieces containing 700 insects, including termites, moths, caterpillars, spiders, pseudoscorpions, and midges, which do suck blood.