Amber has from the most remote ages been familiar to humanity, ornaments in this material having come down to us, shaped by men of the Stone Age, thus proving its antiquity. Many fanciful theories were given in bygone days with regard to its origin, amongst others the historian Nicias stating that the heat of the Sun was so great in some regions as to set up intense perspiration in the earth, from which Amber resulted; whilst among the Greeks a legend existed that it originated in the tears of the sisters of Phaethon, who, in their sorrow at his death, were turned into poplar trees, and whose perpetual tears congealed into Amber. Pliny asserted it to be the overflowing sap of certain trees, hence the name Succinum, from a word signifying "juice"; and modern research confirms this idea of a vegetable origin, for Amber is now known to be the fossil resin of an extinct species of pine of the Tertiary Period.
Amber is found in large quantities on the coast of the Baltic, washed up after storms, and the German Government exercises a strict monopoly over the trade. It is also found round the coasts of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and parts of Asia and the United States; and in Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk. It is very light and soft, possessing remarkable electric properties when heated. That it was once in a liquid state is shown by the insects and plants sometimes found in it, a good many of the insects belonging to species that no longer exist. These specimens specially attracted the attention of the Romans and doubtless gave Pliny his idea of its origin.
Great quantities were introduced into Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero, who in verse described the hair of his wife as amber-coloured, causing much emulation amongst the ladies of his court in their endeavours to secure the fashionable colour. The name Amuletum was given to Amber as well as to the flower Cyclamen (see Chapter I, Part I), both having the power to protect from poisonous drugs, necklaces being worn specially by children for this purpose, and also as a counter-charm against witchcraft and sorcery.
Its range of medicinal virtues is very extensive, Callistratus asserting it to be of great service at any period of life against insanity, either taken as a powder, or worn round the neck; the golden-yellow variety known as the Chryselutum being specially used to ward off ague. The Rev. C. W. King says that "the wearing of an Amber necklace has been known to prevent the attacks of erysipelas in a person subject to them, which has been proved by repeated experiments beyond all possibility of doubt. Its action here cannot be explained, but its efficacy as a defender of the throat against chills is evidently due to its extreme warmth when in contact with the skin, and the circle of electricity so maintained, which latter may account for its remedial agency in the instance quoted above." He also says: "In Pliny's time Amber was universally worn as necklaces by the Transpadane females of Lombardy and Piedmont, partly as an ornament and partly as a prophylactic against goitres, to which they were subject in consequence of the hard quality of the water they drank".
Amber was also worn to protect from deafness, digestive troubles, catarrh, jaundice, loss of teeth from looseness, and as a child's Amulet against convulsions when teething.
Its popularity as mouth-pieces to pipes, cigar-and cigarette-holders arose from a belief in the East that Amber will not transmit infection. It has ever been in vogue throughout China, Japan, India, and the East, and retains its favour to the present day.
The Chinese use it extensively in incense, and it is also used in the manufacture of various perfumes and medical compounds.