Today, we’ve all heard of the Jurassic World movie series and have had a lot of fun watching scenes of long-extinct dinosaurs wreaking havoc in our modern world. Before that, there was the Jurassic Park series which started the entire adventure. But who remembers how this all came about? What made this story possible? You have to think back to the opening scene of the first move which takes place in an underground mine somewhere in the Dominican Republic. The answer is Amber.
Amber is fossilized tree sap from prehistoric pine trees. Just as in the movie, excavators dig deep into the earth to locate amber and sometimes the gemstones
they uncover have prehistoric fossils trapped within. In Jurassic Park, scientists discovered amber with dinosaur DNA preserved inside which they were
able to extract and use in cloning experiments. In real life, amber is sold to scientists, collectors, as well as general public, and those which have
fossil inclusions are in highest demand. Right now, China is undergoing an “amber craze” and amber merchants have seen the price of amber steadily
rise over the past decade when selling to Chinese buyers. Chinese buyers will pay top dollar for amber with insects, lizards, feathers, plant matter,
or anything interesting, beautiful, and rare inside.
The Chinese word for amber is hu po 琥珀, pronounced ‘hoo pwoh’, and is roughly translated as “tiger spirit” or “tiger energy”. Ancient Chinese who first discovered amber and used it for medicinal purposes gave it this name. They believed that when a tiger died, its soul traveled down in the ground and transformed into amber gemstones. It’s hard to say why they believed this but perhaps it has something to do with the affects people experienced from wearing or using the amber for health. Even modern day Chinese say that wearing amber gives the wearer courage and calms the spirit. Amber is used both for ornamental purposes and as medicine where it can be ground into a powder to be ingested.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) states that ingesting Chinese amber can have the following positive effects:
- Stops tremors and palpitations
- Invigorates the blood, dissipates stasis and unblocks the menses
- Promotes urination and unblocks painful urinary dysfunction
- Reduces swelling and promotes healing (topical)
Some TCM practitioners do in fact prescribe amber powder to help with many conditions and many patients report positive results from the medicine. Amber takes millions of years to form so perhaps there’s something to be said about ingesting an organic, natural substance that took that long to be created. Amber as medicine could be likened to herbology however it is unique in that amber is not an herb and it is fossilized.
Apart from the medical benefits reported by Chinese and other Asian cultures which use it, people also love amber for its beauty and create jewelry and art with it. A very popular item is the beaded necklace or beaded bracelet. They are made in varied sizes and in a range of colors from black, deep red, orange, yellow, and even some pieces are blue or green. When it comes to jewelry, Chinese buyers usually prefer the amber with the fewest inclusions or impurities, instead preferring high translucence and peak clarity. Amber pendants are also very popular and are affixed to a metal or woven chain. They come in many different shapes and sizes and some will have carvings on them such as the image of Buddha, a dragon, or even a tiger, for example. Since amber is a soft material, it can be easily carved and beautiful examples of amber statutes can be found in amber markets across China. Similar to the pendants, common themes which are carved are animals, religious figures, as well as characters from Chinese history and scenes of daily life.
Amber markets are usually coupled with jade markets and can be found all over China especially in the big cities. Guangdong province has some of the greatest markets in China such as in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Vendors group themselves together and sell lots of the same products. Since there are so many vendors in the same area selling the same products – what does that mean to you as a buyer? It’s the perfect opportunity to negotiate. Never pay full price and always do your best to get the price a bit lower than what they are asking. Prices are always inflated in touristy areas – so you must keep that in mind.
Some markets are geared towards tourists and others are more towards business. The latter will sell amber in bulk and at wholesale prices. In these markets you can find raw amber sold in natural, unpolished state as well as already finished jewelry.
Amber is very interesting when you consider the age (takes millions of years to form), the beautiful appearance, and the different uses it has. A growing number of Chinese are great admirers of amber and know of the alleged health benefits as well. Because the price of amber has been rising over the past few years, many Chinese even see amber as an investment and will seek out rare pieces to collect and resell later at a profit. In these cases, the most valuable will certainly be those stones with a bit of biological history, or prehistory, held within. If you happen across a piece with a mosquito inside, like in the movie Jurassic Park, you’ll surely be holding a valuable piece which museums or scientists would like to get their hands on.
Enjoy this short video from Science Magazine about the amber and the Chinese market -
Very interesting and relevant to this article!