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Finding Golden Keys to Past in Amber

Scientific VIEW

April 11, 1986|BETTYANN KEVLES

Trapped in a golden prism, the two fleas died a Midas-like death. If the prism is real amber, they are at least 5 million years old, for that is the minimum age it takes to form amber. If it's a fake, they may be younger than the reader.

Amber and diamonds share the distinction of being the only gems with an organic base. Amber is the product of resin from ancient trees that has been washed, over the eons, by salt water.

The perfectly preserved fossils inside some pieces of amber include pollen and fragments of vegetation as well as animals like mites, fleas, flies, and spiders. George O. Poinar Jr., professor of entomology at UC Berkeley, is especially interested in the insects. And in order to validate the antiquity of the trapped specimens, he has become an expert in authenticating the amber itself.

Known for its beauty for centuries, pieces of amber were polished, strung and carved at least as long ago as antiquity. In Miletus, the Greek philosopher Thales noted the charge that amber acquires through friction. This phenomenon, static electricity, fascinated natural philosophers for centuries. Amber continues to interest scientists today, but the growth of evolutionary studies and biotechnologies has now won it the attention of zoologists and geneticists.

While in the past some collectors considered pollen and insects as flaws inside otherwise pure amber, today the "flaws" are the attraction. Biologists are aware that the fossil mites and insects may have known the dinosaurs and indeed are as evolutionarily interesting in their own way as the extinct giant lizards. Moreover, geneticists have recently discovered that the fossilized cells in some specimens contain salvageable remnants of the organism's genetic code.

Poinar often receives pieces of amber to authenticate in terms of time and place of origin. Should the amber prove genuine, he happily examines the life forms inside. Most fakes are easy to spot, Poinar explains. But as the value of amber has increased, he has found himself examining ever more elaborate imposters.

Not long ago a California gem dealer brought him a necklace with tags of authenticity from both the Gem Institute of America and the Gemology Center of West Germany. It had passed all the normal tests of weight (specific gravity), color and odor on burning. The dealer wanted to know the original source of the golden beads that he had been told came from somewhere on the Baltic.

The beads were clear, pear-shaped and contained insects and mites. That limited their possible place of origin, for although amber is found in many parts of the world, including the Dominican Republic, Tanzania, Greece and Northern Europe, amber with insects inside is only found in selected sites. While the beads awaited examination in Poinar's lab, a student accidentally spilled ethyl alcohol on one, exposing part of an underlayer of clear plastic. Twenty minutes immersion in ethanol was enough to reduce the entire golden bead to dull gray.

Armed with this evidence, Poinar told the dealer that the amber was phony and asked where he had got it. But the dealer, who had invested thousands of dollars in more of the same stock, insisted that Poinar was wrong and that the amber was real.

At this point Poinar had to make a decision. As a fake, the necklace held no further professional interest for him, but he pondered his obligations to the greater world of collectors. He decided that the fraud ought to be stopped and filed a complaint with the city of San Francisco's Consumer Fraud Department.

The dealer responded with the threat of a lawsuit and the suggestion that any more interference in the matter would cost Poinar his job at the university. Now honor-bound to pursue the case, Poinar demonstrated the effects of alcohol on the "amber" before a group of lawyers for the city, and for the dealer. After some delay, the amber was declared false and an order issued preventing any more sales in the United States.

Poinar is pleased that he prevented that particular fraudulent amber from fouling the collections of American museums and institutions. The fake amber, however, is still on the market in West Germany. And it is still on Poinar's mind. His interest in the counterfeit has grown from a desire to expose the false to a curiosity about exactly how the almost foolproof phony resin is manufactured. Not holding much hope that he will ever find out, Poinar is concentrating on examining those ancient fleas trapped in some other amber that was also sent to him for verification. That specimen turned out to be real.

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