Amber and Jet

By Donna Aquino

Forward by Lady Bridget

Many High Priests and Priestesses prize amber and jet; you will often see them wearing necklaces made from amber and jet in many combinations. This article explains the significance of these natural fossils, and is reprinted here with the author's permission. Donna Aquino sells beautiful amber and jet jewelry on Eclectic Witch auction site, Ebay auctions, and Amazon's auctions under the name Strega2 and I have personally purchased earrings and can attest to their quality and attractiveness.

Amber is the organic fossil of tree sap which flowed from pine trees that flourished 50 to 60 million years ago. Most of these forests were situated in what is now the Baltic Sea area, although large deposits are also found in the Dominican Republic and China. As the Baltic Sea slowly encroached upon the pine forests, huge deposits of amber were submerged. Amber is thus often associated with the element of water, although for many it symbolizes fire. Dominican and Chinese amber is mined from deep underground deposits, giving it more of an association with earth.

Amber is probably the oldest substance used for adornment, ritual and magical purposes. From ancient times, it was prized as "solidified sunlight," and believed to possess many of the sun's life-giving properties. As the fabled "gold of the North," it was much sought-after by the Greeks and Romans. Scott Cunningham notes that "amber has been used for nearly every purpose in magic." It was often worn by shamans and witches, who believed that it could increase the power of their magic. To this day, it is widely used around the world to safeguard health.

The "magical marriage" of amber and jet dates from ancient times. The combination may be derived from the primal union of sunlight and darkness, day and night, God and Goddess, life and death. It evokes the original union of Gaia/Rhea and Saturn/Chronos, to whom the stones are respectively sacred. Both are the fossilized remains of ancient trees, one of the earliest objects of reverence, especially to the Druids. An amber and jet necklace is often worn by Third-Degree witches of the Gardnerian tradition during rituals. Most importantly, it is believed by many magicians to be the only combination of stones that gives a full spectrum of electrical charges, from positive to negative.

Amber may also possess magical properties now unknown to us: many Atlantologists believed that the fabled "aurichalcum" of Atlantis was actually molten amber. Its intensely magnetic and electrical properties (the Greek word elektron means amber) may indicate that it holds properties yet to be discovered. Anyone interested in amber is well advised to read Dr. Patty C. Rice's Amber: The Golden Gem of the Ages for an exhaustive and fascinating study.

Jet, known in folklore as "black amber" or "witch's amber," was also used in jewelry, in magic and incense, and is believed to be a potent protective and grounding agent. Jet jewelry should not be loaned out, as it is said to be so absorptive that its owner can be vulnerable to negative magic if it falls into the wrong hands. Both the Romans and the Chinese believed that jet is simply a more ancient form of amber.

Amber is found in a dazzling array of hues, and many of their names refer to food. The costly and rare "cherry" amber is a deep wine color, while "custard," "butterscotch," "butter," "caramel," and "cream" ambers are self-descriptive. "Egg-yolk" amber actually looked like beaten eggs, with streaks of yellow and white. "Tomato" amber looks like partly ripe cherry tomatoes. The classic Baltic amber is usually called "honey" or "cognac," while the deeper, sunnier amber of the Dominican Republic is called "orange." An opaque type of Baltic amber is called "fatty" since it resembles a lump of animal fat, although this does not diminish its magical properties. Amber from Romania tends to be quite dark, as does Burmese, which is often called "tiger" amber because of its swirls of black in a dark orange. Amber also comes in a very rare blue, and black-and-white, as well as a lovely green. "Blonde" or "white" amber is often referred to as "new" amber by dealers. Although it is new only by a few million years!

The beautiful and rare green and cherry ambers found in the Baltic Sea area derive their colors from the sap of the now-extinct pine trees that they exuded from. These are found only in the Baltic, so most paleontologists theorize that these trees, with their deep green or deep red saps, were indigenous to this region. The enormous pine forest that once covered what is now the Baltic Sea is now completely submerged.

There are some simple tests to determine if your amber is genuine. One if the "hot needle" test, where you heat a needle in a flame and then touch it to the amber. There should be a faint but unmistakable piney smell. Resin will give off a chemical smell, and a melted filament may cling to the needle. Rubbing amber with a soft cloth will often cause it to give off an electrical spark, and attract a very light object like a feather. You can also use the "salt flotation" test: place several tablespoons of salt in a glass of water, and float a piece of amber in it. Amber will float, while glass and resin will sink.

While many people prefer amber in natural chunks, the process of slightly heating amber to make it malleable into round beads does not change its magical properties. Hand-faceted amber is very expensive, but molded faceted amber is affordable and genuine. However, "fused" or "reconstituted" amber is simply tiny chunks of amber fused together with a resin binder. While technically amber, I avoid this kind, as it may well interfere with amber's magical properties.

Jet is a variety of fossilized coal, from the various kinds of coal deposits. The softest kind of jet is from lignite coal, while the hardest is from anthracite coal. The classic British jet comes from the Whitby mines of Yorkshire. Antique Whitby jet is expensive but still available, as it became very popular during Victorian times as mourning jewelry. It is usually found in fairly small, irregularly faceted beads, although other kinds of jet can also be finely faceted and polished. In Victorian times, the demand for Whitby jet jewelry was so overwhelming that jet manufacturers were often forced to import other European jet to meet the demand. That is why some English jet jewelry is softer and less durable than Whitby jet.

An authority on Whitby jet and its history, Helen Muller, states that hard jet was probably formed under seawater and soft jet under freshwater. However, "very little is known scientifically about the differences between hard and soft jet, or between jet, lignite and cannel coal," and that "the Whitby jet workers were convinced that jet, like amber, was the solidified resin of trees." (pp. 4-5) Jet from the Whitby mines is considered to be the finest in the world, although very good quality genuine jet is found all over Europe and North America, especially Spain, Germany and Pennsylvania. American and European jet is more likely to be found in uniformly faceted beads that can appear very similar to black glass.

China is a newcomer in both the amber and jet markets, but the buyer is cautioned to test the amber, as there have been several incidents of fused or reconstituted amber being sold as natural. China is primarily a manufacturer; the large amber deposits in Burma are almost all sold to China. Chinese jet is usually smooth, sold in various types of beads, and is not as durable as British, American or European jet.

Jet is easily confused with glass, and can be tested for authenticity in only one way. Take a single jet bead and suspend it from a wire-wear glasses or sunglasses when you do-and hold it over a flame with a pair of pliers. Genuine jet will smoke and often even turn white at the edges, while plastic will melt into messy strings and glass will simply explode (hence the need for glasses). Anthracite jet, denser and heavier than lignite, will often split apart evenly due to minute fractures in the material. Remember, if it splits apart evenly, leaving a shiny surface inside, it is anthracite jet; if it simply explodes, it is glass. With all kinds of jet, you will be able to wipe aware a residue of charcoal from the bead and re-polish it.

Jet is more likely than glass to display tiny cracks and scratches, or to be irregularly faceted, and to feel lighter and warmer to the touch. But this is true primarily of British and lignite jet; anthracite beads will often feel both heavy and cold. Buying jet is thus always something of a risk. Jet is a generic term in jewelry, often referring only to color. "French jet" is antique glass, "Austrian jet" is black crystal," and "Bakelite jet" is an antique manufactured resin. All are beautiful, but do not possess genuine jet's magical properties.

Recommended reading:

Helen Muller."Jet". Butterworths Gem Books, 1987. (The best reference on jet, especially a comprehensive history of the Whitby jet industry)

Helen Muller."Jet Jewellery and Ornaments". Shire Publications, 1998. (Excellent survey of jet jewelry and its imitations)

Patty C. Rice." Amber: The Golden Gem of the Ages". The Kosciusko Foundation, 1980. (THE comprehensive reference book on amber)

David A. Grimaldi." Amber: Window to the Past". American Museum of Natural History/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996. (Another good reference, mostly scientific. Excellent photos)

Scott Cunningham." Crystal, Gem and Metal Magic". Llewellyn Publications, 1993. (Good survey of the mythology and historical uses of gems)

Dorothee L. Mella." Stone Power". Warner Books, 1986. (Similar to Cunningham)

George F. Kunz." The Curious Lore of Precious Stones". Dover Publications, 1913. (One of the earliest and best references to history and uses of gems)

The Whitby Jet Website: presently under reconstruction)

Back to Wicca Menu
Back to Lady Bridget's Home Page