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Amber is one of the most beautiful of all natural objects: its glowing golden colour, its exquisite, smooth, silky texture, are alike remarkable. There is a great lump of it in the window of a tobacconist in the Burlington Arcade, which always fascinates me as I pass by, but those who only know amber in its two distinctive shades of yellow, clear and dull, have little appreciation of the glory of the colour of the amber that can be found in Sicily, sometimes of superb red colour, occasionally blue, and often opalescent and fluorescent, with wonderful shades of green and yellow and pink.
"What is that curious brooch you have on?" I said to a lady who once called upon me, and she replied that unfortunately it was only a piece of bright coloured paste she had found amongst her grandmother's things.
I begged her to let me see it, and tore up some minute pieces of tissue paper, and then, rubbing her brooch on the sleeve of my coat, proved to her at once that she had a piece of fine Sicilian amber in her possession, of precious quality, for all the tiny morsels of tissue paper clung to it, jumping up to meet it as I held it towards them.
"You have surely a very curious ornament to your hand-bag? "was the remark that I made on another occasion, noticing a pendent blob of yellow hanging to a very pretty satin bag.
Again the owner knew nothing about it, and it was an exquisite piece of amber, enshrining a fine green beetle of a sort of diamond back variety, and that lump of amber now adorns the owner's neck, suspended from a gold chain. It turned out afterwards that the hand-bag had been made by a person who had stolen various ornaments at an earlier period of her career, without much knowledge of their value, and had used them to decorate the hand-bags she sold.
Occasionally there are carved pieces of amber to be found, and I have seen a more or less complete set of chessmen carved in amber.
In a country house in England there is a magnificent chess-board, mounted in silver, in which the chequers are of amber of different shades of colour. It originally belonged to one of the early Stuart monarchs, and is an amazingly fine thing.
I once missed purchasing an amber casket; the price seemed high, but was not really so; when I returned to the shop, someone else had carried off the treasure. There are many people nowadays wearing amber beads, and for a while the most popular form of amber seems to be the dull, cloudy yellow, but the more beautiful amber is the deep, clear, almost transparent orange coloured amber, and in many instances these remarkable pieces of fossil resin enshrine beautifully preserved insects, leaves, even fruits and flowers, hair and feathers, which became enveloped in the mysterious ages of the past, when the amber was fluid.
One of the reasons why amber is used by smokers is because the Turks always said it was quite incapable of transmitting any infection, it can be cleansed in a minute, and as when they desire to pay a guest particular honour they transfer the mouthpiece of the pipe from the host's mouth to that of the guest, it was desirable that something should be used about which there was no fear of infection.
In buying pieces of amber or amber ornaments, the collector should be careful that he does not obtain either artificial amber, which has no electrical power at all, or what is sometimes called ambroid, really composed of small bits of amber, softened and pressed together. This pressed amber has a certain amount of electrical power, but it can always be detected through the microscope, as the effect of it under polarised light is entirely different to that which appears when actual amber is examined.
In the days of the Renaissance amber was in very great demand, and was highly regarded on account of its beauty. In the museums of Florence can be seen several splendid amber cups and caskets; there are fine ones also in Spain, but I have seen several good examples in the hands of London and provincial dealers, sometimes with carved figures at the corners of the caskets, sometimes associated with carved ivory panels, not often in fine condition, but always delightful in colour and charm.
The best of yellow amber comes from Konigsberg, and is fished up from the Baltic Sea, but the most glorious of amber is that which is found in Sicily, especially near to Catania.
Very few things are more beautiful than the exquisite bits of amber that are made up into necklaces, ear-rings and pendent jewels, and are amongst the great treasures of the Sicilian people.
Even in Italy, the material is not always recognised. In the largest collection that has ever been formed of Italian jewellery, I discovered a necklace with three pieces of beautiful Sicilian rosy amber, of the exquisite red that can be seen at the time of a sunset.
The owner, an able expert, was sure that the material was only composition, but again, the electric power that amber acquires by friction proved that my surmise was a correct one-that, set in this piece of Sicilian jewellery, were three as lovely bits of Catanian amber as I had ever seen. The student of natural history is sure to be interested in amber, and one of the curious things about the treasures that are found inside amber is that we have no remains of any mammal, except certain tufts of hair.
Nor is there anything which relates to the creatures which lived in the water, but insects that would find their homes in trees are frequently to be seen, such as spiders, ants and flies, while the existence of some portions of feathers reveals to us the presence of birds in the old amber forests.
There is certainly in Munich part of the remains of a lizard to be seen in a lump of amber, and in Berlin there is what is stated to be a portion of a fish, but it is almost certain that both of these things have been introduced artificially, because amber can be softened with hot oil, and by means of some pressure two broken pieces of amber can be brought together.
The leaves that are to be found in amber almost all belong to pine trees, but there are also representatives of such trees as the oak and the willow, the beech and the poplar to be found, as well as some leaves that have not hitherto been identified as belonging to any existing tree.
Moreover, both the leaves and the blossom of the camphor tree have been found in German amber, showing that this tree, which now we only find in the East, in what are called Tertiary times, must have been growing in Northern Europe.
The Chinese were fond of amber, and there are several interesting buttons for Chinese robes to be found in that material, sometimes beautifully carved, representing strange monsters or curious figures.
The Japanese also were attracted by the beauty of the same material, and very often, amongst Japanese things, pieces of amber can be found.
Then, the stoppers of snuff bottles are often of amber, and the pendant ornaments from the long chains of beads that Chinese mandarins wear are sometimes of amber, and are worth searching for.
A collection of pieces of amber can be of great beauty, and as amber can be found almost all over the world, various different kinds can be gathered up.
For example, Rumanian amber is often wonderfully flecked with points of colour, resembling gold and silver, and there are some beautiful examples of it in the museum at Bukarest. From very remote times it has been a delight to the eye.
There is a fine cup of amber in the Brighton Museum, which came from a barrow discovered in Sussex. Bits of amber are found in AngloSaxon graves, even in prehistoric caves, and amber has been dug up at Cromer, Felixstowe, Aldeburgh, and other places.
In Russia, in one of the Emperor's palaces, was a room decorated with amber and containing beautiful works in that material. It is many years since I saw it. I wonder what has become of it? Collectors who are in search of a new hobby may well be recommended to take up the study of amber, and they will find a great joy in it.
It is also worth while to read up what has been written about amber, concerning the old ideas that it was useful as an amulet, that it had medicinal properties, that it was hung around the neck, that it was used even in cookery, and then the student may be advised to look up the kindred subject of ambergris and find out how often confusion has arisen between the two entirely different materials having no resemblance to one another, save in name.