Amber boasts a long and colorful history. To Stone Age people, it resembled the sun. To Greeks its golden-hued transparency suggested bird’s tears or urine of lynxes. To Romans, who trekked along the ancient Amber Road from the far reaches of the Baltic Sea, it was “northern gold.”
Amber is named for ambergris, an oily, waxy substance secreted by whales that often washes ashore. Chunks of butterscotch, lemon, cognac, honey gold, greeny gold, or bone-hued amber also wash ashore, especially during storms. But there the resemblance ends.
Baltic Amber, the oldest and most abundant in the world, began as tree resin some 60 million years ago. As it oozed to the ground, the resin’s stickiness often enveloped bits of vegetation or insect life, before hardening. But amber is also found below ground. Small lodes around the world yield much rarer blue, black, white, and cherry-red shades.
Amber, through the ages, was valued both as amulet and therapeutic. Nero not only decorated his circus with this mineral, but also adorned his gladiators with bits of sequin-like amber amulets, to assure their victory. Physicians applied ground amber salves to wounds or, mixing it with honey and oil of roses, remedied a variety of other ailments. People commonly wore amber amulets against a wide array of afflictions, including evil spells and madness. Amber was also prized for its “magical” creation of static electricity when rubbed. As amber fever swept Rome, women hennaed their hair to match.
Because amber, with its low melting point, softens and smokes fragrantly when heated, it was commonly used as incense. Sailors at sea burned it against the perils of the deep. Common folk inhaled its piney vapors to drive away evil forces.
During the 12th century, the Order of Teutonic Knights, calling themselves “The Lords of Amber,” assumed control of the amber-rich Baltic Basin. For long centuries, they alone collected, processed, and traded this northern gold. Anyone else caught collecting, hiding, or stealing their lucrative bounty was harshly punished, sometimes by death. Trade flourished as more and more of Europe became Christianized.
Nobility and clergy commissioned religious mosaics and altar decorations, while common folk prayed over amber rosaries, icons, and crosses. After the Protestant Reformation, however, useful and decorative items like cups, bowls, mirror frames, chessboards, and cutlery, replaced religious ones.
Amber, hard enough to withstand the ravages of time, is soft enough to be worked with simple tools. Yet through the 16th century, most amber works were small. Later techniques, however, allowed craftsmen to slice amber into very thin translucent plates. Engraved with gilded motifs or scenes, accented with ivory, or coaxed into multi-color geometrics, these plates were often combined with others, forming grandiose creations. In time, these amber plates were veneered onto sturdy wooden frames, allowing for larger projects yet.
Frederick the First of Prussia commissioned the largest project by far, The Amber Room, sometimes dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World. When it was completed, its walls, floors, and ceiling glistened with tons of multi-colored plates of translucent, carved, highly ornamented, polished amber. When the sun illuminated it, visitors enthused, it was like standing in a gigantic jewel box. After Frederick presented his Amber Room to Tsar Peter the Great of Russia, craftsmen enlarged and embellished it yet further. Indeed, for the next 200 years, the Amber Room was amazingly preserved. Then during the World War II invasion of Russia, the Nazis dismantled the room and shipped it to Konigsberg, an age old Baltic amber center. In the post-war chaos, the Amber Room disappeared. Was it damaged by bombs, hidden for safekeeping, stolen, or destroyed by fire? To this day, its fate remains a mystery. Six decades and $11 million later, Frederick’s Amber Room, reconstructed, graces a Russian State Museum outside St. Petersburg.
During both World War periods, amber production ground nearly to a standstill. But since the collapse of the Communist Bloc, shops around the world once again burst with amber sculptures, necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings, and rosaries. Mothers, as of old, drape their babies’ necks with amber “teething necklaces,” to ease croup or teething pains. Women wear strings of unpolished amber to guard against goiter, while their husbands, to insure male virility, imbibe shots of vodka laced with amber powder.
Large pieces of amber, because they are less expensive and lighter than many other gems, are often featured in pieces of jewelry. Transparent specimens are more desirable than opaque, and those with inclusions of flora and fauna, more desirable still. The value of amber jewelry depends on its color, age, setting, and authenticity. A vintage butterscotch brooch, for example, featuring transparent Baltic amber, set in rose gold (a Russian favorite) or .99 silver, and containing a fly or a gnat, may command hundreds of dollars.
But the amber market has changed in recent years. Today small amber fragments, once routinely discarded, are often heated and pressed into uniform masses. The giveaway, outside of exposure to telltale polarized light, is their low price tag. “Amber” manufactured from artificially hardened natural resins, also widely available, is inexpensive too. Since these resins date back only a few hundred to a few million years, they are many times younger than natural amber.
Although synthetics, plastics, and glass often mimic amber, a few simple tests will reveal their true origins. Real amber floats in salt water, is warm to the touch, and when rubbed vigorously, produces static electricity. When burned like incense, it releases pleasantly piney white smoke, yet does not melt. When scraped with a knife blade, amber does not flake, but powders. Amber’s inclusions often provide clues to its origins too. Beware tiny acrylic-plugged drill holes found on the back of pieces or too perfect, too big, or too contemporary beetles and bees trapped inside.