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AMBER: TIME, NATURE ARE TRAPPED IN ORGANIC GEMS

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CASSANDRIA PARSONS has long known the lore and lure of amber.

"I used to explain to people that amber existed `before Christ,' knowing that it took 60 million years to get to this stage," says Parsons, owner of Recollections and Vital Interests in the ZCMI Center. "I thought people could relate to the the B.C. period, and not that of dinosaurs."But in the wake of the best-selling novel and hugely successful movie "Jurassic Park," many more people now know that amber, treasured as a gem since prehistoric times, is actually a fossil - a result of tree resin, or sap, that trapped air, plants, insects and various foreign materials millions of years ago and hardened.

Parsons has a remarkable collection of amber, some for sale in her shop, including separate stonelike pieces and others set in jewelry, pendants, bracelets and necklaces.

Amber is usually found in shades from golden yellow to deep brown, although sometimes it is tinted red, green or blue. "The color fascinates me," she says. "I'm attracted to the warmth in there. Time and nature are trapped in these pieces."

Two pieces in her collection, smaller than a child's thumbnail, have trapped mosquitoes. One contains a fly, another an ant with wings.

"Once I had a piece of amber with a dragonfly in it. I'd had the piece for years, and people who came into the store wondered why a dragonfly in `resin' would cost so much. One day a couple who knew about amber bought the piece. They took it to a jeweler to have the raw piece made into a pendant. When the jeweler drilled into it, it cracked."

In "Jurassic Park," an ambitious developer uses his own financial resources, others' advances in science - and amber - to create the world's most extraordinary wildlife park, one populated with dinosaurs.

In the story, amber from around the world is collected so scientists can find ancient insects that may have pestered dinosaurs 65 million and more years ago. The scientists extract dino blood and then DNA material from these preserved insects - and with it resurrect the prehistoric beasts.

The scientific theory behind the book and movie has been around for only about 10 years.

The motion picture also has had a ripple effect on amber sales. Parsons' supplier called to say he would send her more amber - even though she hadn't ordered any. Demand, he said, has been way up since the release of "Jurassic Park." Universal Studios had been calling wanting any amber with bugs in it, "but I would rather you have the amber than them. I know of your love of amber," her supplier said.

The world's most significant deposits occur along the shores of the Baltic Sea, where gems recovered from the glauconitic sands represent an extinct flora that flourished millions of years ago.

Amber has been a prize and the stuff of legend since ancient times. Primitive peoples wore it for adornment and used amber in charms and talismans to fend off evil spirits and disease. The purported healing powers have extended to goiter, insanity, delirium, fever, asthma and kidney stones, and amber has been used as an aphrodisiac and as protection against sorcery and witchcraft. Even today, Baltic peoples say they find tincture of amber helpful both as a rubbing agent to soothe rheumatic pains and as an internal aid to circulation.

One legend tells of Jurata, Queen of the Sea. Her palace was built entirely of amber. Alas, she made the unforgivable mistake of falling in love with a mortal, and the King of the Gods shattered her domain. Since that day, multicolored pieces of Jurata's amber palace have washed ashore to bring the warmth of the goddess's love to the fortunate people who find them.

Some of the most exquisite pieces of amber Parsons has seen are prayer beads and other items in the Buddhist temple in Irvine, Calif. Each prayer bead string has 102 amber pieces, believed by some to have the power of healing.

Chinese also give amber as gifts of marriage because they believe amber will help the couple conceive, "because of the life form inside."

The golden gem was used in trade in prehistoric times. Beads found their way deep into Africa long before the modern era. Archaeologic evidence of Baltic amber's use as a trade commodity dates back to 8000 B.C., and it is recorded that Phoenician sea-traders carried amber throughout the known world 4,000 years ago. Women of Agamemnon's court wore amber in their hair, and Roman women dyed their locks to match the resin's golden color.

Emperor Nero reportedly sent an expedition to the uncivilized and dangerous north to bring back large quantities of the precious material to luxury-loving Rome. Later, amber was used by both Christians and Muslims for rosaries. The Teutonic knights, who conquered much of northeastern Europe, established a monopoly over the amber trade in the 13th century; any unauthorized person found in possession of amber could be hanged.

Wherever amber traveled - to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Tibet and China - a greater demand for it followed. Eventually guilds were organized to maintain control over the quality and quantity of material worked. Leftovers unsuitable for jewelry were made into lacquer and varnish.

After the Protestant Reformation, which lessened the demand for rosaries, the use of amber for artistic works was encouraged. Jewelry, candlesticks, jewel caskets, chests, chess sets and similar items were produced during the 15th through the 18th centuries.

Possibly the high point of this artistic use of amber was achieved during the reign of Russia's Peter the Great, when an entire room fabricated of Baltic amber was presented to him by Frederick William I of Prussia. The room was dismantled during World War II and disappeared. It is not known if it was destroyed, lost or stolen. The hope persists that the famous "Amber Room" will someday reappear.

Most recently Parsons was introduced to a Lithuanian who immigrated to the United States. He carried with him a pillowcase full of amber. His biggest fear was that it would be confiscated at customs or that he would be robbed somewhere along his journey. The amber was what he would use to start his new life. He came to Parsons because he heard of her love of amber.

Like a pearl, amber is considered an organic gem. In her collection, Parsons has a range of amber in dark to light shades of yellow and brown, from clear to "goosefat or butterscotch" or opaque. Transparent amber is prized as gem material, but Parsons' favorite pieces are those that contain leaves, sand, insects and "sunbursts," or pockets of air.

Most amber artisans, said Parsons, will look at each gem and build a mounting around the piece. She considers the Polish to be the best craftsmen. She has several examples in which the amber has not been altered, each with a sterling silver mounting gently constructed around the piece to create a pendant, pin or ring - a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

"Amber jewelry is lightweight, and we never tire wearing it," Parsons says. "Other jewelry has a weight, such as gold, pearls or jade. Amber is very light."

Today amber is considered the stone representative of the 10th wedding anniversary, and it is an alternate as November's birthstone. It is also associated with the zodiac sign of Leo the Lion. The Chinese symbol for amber can be translated as "soul of the tiger."

As a gem, amber pieces may seem steep for some buyers. Like gold, amber is sold by gram weight. Some of Parsons' pieces are worth hundreds of dollars. But she knows that when she sells a piece, it is to someone who knows what amber is and knows of its worth, and she is happy to part with it.

And she stresses the rarity of amber.

The major Baltic deposits are almost depleted after all these thousands of years. Deposits in the Dominican Republic are still being mined, but "when that's gone, it's gone," said Parsons.

Then amber will be as extinct as the dinosaurs.