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The magic of amber

  19 May 2019

(Originally published: 02/2010) Amber is found all over the world – in France, Hungary, Romania, the Dominican Republic on the island of Haiti, in Mexico, in Vietnam and Malaysia, Australia and Japan, on the northern islands Greenland and Sakhalin. The most treasured and famous since primeval times is however Baltic amber, occurring mainly in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia. In the 5th century BC merchants from Roman Empire set out for the magic mineral, lying out, famous in later times of civilization, the Amber Road from Adriatic to southern coasts of the Baltic Sea. 


Courtesy of WSPAK

The Gold of the Baltic Sea


In Poland amber was extracted from the bottom of the Baltic (till today, after great gales it is possible to find lumps of the mineral on the beach, which is the favourite activity of holiday makers). This way it is possible to gain fairly big pieces: the biggest chunk of the Baltic amber found nearby Kamien Pomorski in 1860 weighs 9, 75 kg. Amber was ploughed up or dug out from the ground; farmers in such parts of Poland as Warmia, Kaszuby and Kurpie were engaged in it.


Amber had magic and esoteric meaning for our ancestors. It baffled Ancient Greeks when once rubbed with silk started showing attractive qualities.  They called it electron, which means shiny and glowing. Its magic was more appreciated thanks to the remains of the animals and plants, little amphibians and reptiles, insects, the twigs of grass and shrubs found in the transparent lumps. The remains are called inclusions and are valuable research material for biologists and palaeontologists. Amber was greatly valued in folk medicine. A line of beads was a cure for 'a thick neck', which is goitre caused by thyroid hypo-function. Wearing beads prevented headaches as well. Smoke from amber joss sticks killed gems and grinded powder was used as tobacco in later times which was to clear sinuses and help to get rid of cold. The beliefs of our ancestors were not unfounded if contemporaries drink amber tincture so eagerly (it is supposed to be good for thyroid disorders, hoarseness and throat infections) or rub amber cream (helps with rheumatism and wound healing).


Since earliest times amber was used for the manufacture of jewellery and decorative objects. At the beginning they were the most popular in the country since amber jewellery, for instance strings of beads hanging around neck, was cheap and spectacular. In Kujawy and valley of Narwia the necklaces were sometimes decorated with golden coins or crosses or holy medals. Sumptuous amber necklace was supposed to make the wishes for the bride come true 'give her, give her amber beads, so that she has healthy sons'. Moreover, almost every host yearned for stylish amber snuff-box, or an ornamented pipe.



The Amber Chamber and the Amber Altar


With time evolved artistic crafts connected with the exploitation of the mineral and amber craft became genuine art. One of its centres was Gdansk, where in 1477, by the right of King Kazimierz Jagiellonczyk Royal Charter a guild of amber craftsmen came into existence. The workshops of the amber craftsmen in Elblag and Królewiec became famous in whole Europe, and renown from jeweller's work Nuremberg.


The 17th and 18th centuries are considered to be the topmost period of the the crafts development. The best known work of art was the Amber Chamber given to Peter Tsar of Russia by Frederick II King of Prussia and exposed in tsar's palace in Carskie Siolo nearby Saint Petersburg. (During II World War Germen robbed the chamber and a chests with its content was taken to the castle in Królewiec; during the times of the escape the Red Army the chests disappeared without a trace; they were looked for in vain in Pasleka and Bolkow. It has been said that they drowned in the cargo space of the torpedoed ship 'Wilhelm Gustloff'). Caskets and wardrobes for jewellery weight a few hundred kilos, fine cases, curtains or tessellated images, brooches and buckles come from this period. Some of them may be admired in the Museum of Amber in old Katownia in Gdansk and on exhibition shown in the Castle in Malbork.


Contemporary masters of amber art are worthy their seventeen century predecessors. A citizen of Gdansk, Lucjan Myrta, having been inspired by earlier works of art, produced the Amber Altar, ornamented with remarkable reliefs presenting biblical scenes. The wardrobe is two meters long and three meters high; the artist used above 825 kilograms of amber for the production of the work. He worked on the project for twelve years. Other amber craftsmen from Gdansk - Wiesław Gierlowski, Stanislaw Dawid and many others can glory in similar achievements.


Polish amber art might have been famous for a great altar in Church of St. Brygida in Gdansk. In order to build the altar, twelve meters high and eleven meters wide, eight tons of high quality amber was needed. Beauty and breadth of the project is revealed through its silver framework and little pieces of the altar filled with amber. The supplies of Russian amber fell, the extraction of amber in the country was not started, parish-priest Henryk Jankowski, who was unwell, lost energy and inclination - this is how a chance to create the object, which undoubtedly could have gained world fame, was ruined. Thousands of worshippers and tourists are only amazed at huge amber monstrance, used in the church of St. Brygida during major ceremonies.



Exclusive jewellery - Polish speciality

Polish speciality is unique jewellery made with amber - exclusive necklaces and pendants, brooches and rings. Polish designers use mainly silver, silk, and leather to mount the mineral. Thanks to skills of our craftsmen and wisely managed promotional campaign, a fast-growing sector of industry developed in Poland. At the beginning of the 21st century, in the period of the industry expansion, export of amber goods totalled $300-350 per year. It is an enormous amount, as bearing in mind the fact that at that time all Polish dockyards, considered as the national industry, and exported ships for $80. Poland captured half of the market and countries that dominated on the list of the importers were the U.S., Japan and France.


And although the days of excellence have passed, as the access to the mineral has been restricted (Russians have had difficulties with extraction of open-cast mining in Jantarne and closed borders - and it is not a secret - many of the workshops used smuggled amber), the best and strongest ones still exist on the market.  It is a fact as in the tenth International Trade Fair of Amber - Ambermart 2009 130 exhibitors were present, among of which were companies from China, Japan, India and Sri Lanka.


Amber workshops hide many secrets: each craftsman has their own methods of subjecting the rugged lumps to thermal processes of clarification and colouring, purification, grinding and polishing. What distinguishes fine artists is the uniqueness of jewellery produced by them that is a Polish speciality. Their artistic credo is to leave the amber in its natural form. The designers explain: 'We adjust to the glamorous beauty of nature and we try to work on the mineral in the least invasive way'.


The shape and colour of the lumps encourage ideas. Lumps differ in shape, each has different colouring - the most important is choosing every single element so that they gain natural characteristics which decide about its artistic shape. It requires many days of labour-intensive work. But only this kind of works is recognized by clients of the biggest of couture houses.


Shiny, decorative pins clipping a tunic of a woman in ancient Rome, a line of beads around neck of a girl from Kurpie, a glittering cameo on a silk ribbon on a contemporary lady's chest. Each of the adornments contains a lump of amber. Is it not a magic mineral?

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