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You are here: Home > amberology articles > the beauty of amber
The Beauty of Amber
by Gabriela Gierlowska reprinted with permission
 
Baltic amber is an organic substance-fossil resin produced in natural conditions at least 40 million years ago. It survived until our times in forms documenting its origin and history. It dripped from wounds and cuts of tree trunks and branches, creating forms such as drops, icicles and the so-called streams-bigger nuggets with impressions of the bark of resin-giving trees. It collected inside tree trunks, taking characteristic forms in the heart, cracks, and resinous pockets between the annual rings. Complex shapes took their form in the bark and under it.
raw amber nuggets baltic variety of amber

Apart from the natural form, which shows the origin (both in terms of place and formation) of amber nuggets, also important are colour and transparency of amber.
 
These depend on:
     -amber structure
     -conditions and the presence of various minerals in which the
     resin was polimerised
     -contents of organic residues

Minute bubbles are visible in the structure of amber under a strong microscope. Their number and distribution are decisive for the degree of transparency and colour of amber, which along with the size of the nuggets largely determine the value and attractiveness of the raw amber material.

amber cortex also called amber bark or amber skinnatural amber cortex redder in color

Varieties of raw amber material.

As results from the documents which survived until today, amber craftsmen had a comprehensive practical knowledge of amber structure. In their own times they got involved in arguments about the prices of the raw material: "lumps equal in weight do not cost the same, as the price depends on their purity, transparency, rarity & color uniqueness." (Quoted from J. Grabowska.)
 amber owl carved sculpture
The use of amber containing organic and mineral particles in a sculpture entitled, "Owls." >>
 
Amber preserves traces of life dating back to the times when the liquid resin was setting. They are plant and animal inclusions. Such special, exceptional nuggets are valued and searched for by natural history museums, scientific institutes and collectors all over the world. They are the only so well-preserved natural rarities. They stir our imagination, as the fact that such delicate and short-living organisms as insects, plants or stellate oak hairs survived for 40 million years is truly fascinating.

Insect trapped in amber

Lizard in Baltic amber, referred to as Gdansk lizard, was found in 1997, when Gdansk was celebrating its millennium. It was exhibited for the first time during an international symposium "Baltic Amber and Other Fossil Resins- 997 Urbs Gyddanyzc - 1997 Gdansk," in Gdansk. The exceptional, photogenic specimen of the lizard in natural Baltic amber (which has not been treated or clarified) arouses continuous interest. The lizard, as results from research published in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica PAN no. 4/1999, is a young specimen of Succinilacerta succinea (Boulenger, 1917) and made it possible to significantly extend our knowledge about the species.
 
The properties of amber are very beneficial to people.
 
Amber:
          -Is warm to the touch and gives out a [faint] nice, relaxing smell when warmed in your hand
          -Is the only fossil resin containing 3-8% succinic acid- a multi-purpose therapeutic substance (most succinic acid is
               located in amber cortex, i.e. its surface layer)
          -[Amber] is marked by a great variety of colors
          -[Amber] sinks in fresh water, but floats to the surface in salt water
          -[Amber] has a density amounting to 0.96-1.096g/cm3
          -[Amber] burns giving out a resinous smell and aromatic smoke we know well from church ceremonies (according to
               Plinus, "Amber shavings immersed in olive oil burn lighter and longer than linen fibre.")
          -Electrifies negatively
          -Has a hardness amounting to 2.0-2.5 on the Mohs scale
          -Is still alive, as its internal transformations have not been finished yet. amber nuggets many colors
 
Plants used the resin which became amber as an antibiotic, cut healing balm or wound dressing plaster.
 
Man's interest in amber dates back to the Paleolithic. Human beings were amazed by the secret properties of the burning stone, its exceptional smell and the beauty of the nuggets they found by the sea. Initially, people hung interesting natural [amber] forms on leather thongs for decoration, protection and good luck.
 
Owing to the beauty of amber and the ease of its processing, it was commonly used as a raw material for the manufacture of talismans and ornaments as early as in the Stone Age. Archaeological findings show that the biggest centre of Neolithic amber craft was located in the region of Zulawy Wislane (Vistula Lowlands).
 
burning stone amber bernstein
 
Goods made there were used both locally and for long distance exchange. We may admire amber ornaments representing Wejherowo-Krotoszyn culture dating back to the 8th century BC in the Archaeological Museum in Gdansk. There are also records confirming the existence of large amber workshops in the medieval town of Sobenczyce and in Sopot in the times of the tribal Pomerania (before it was incorporated into the Piast monarchy).
 
In the 10th century amber craft was undergoing constant development on a considerable scale. It was stopped when Pomerania was conquered by Teutonic Knights in 1308. Amber processing was banned in the monastic state. Teutonic Knights established a strict system of control and severe penalties for breaking the ban on the collection and processing of amber. The death penalty was not rare.
 

Rough Baltic Amber Nuggets

 
After the 13-year war and the conclusion of the Torun peace treaty in 1466, Pomerania returned to the Polish Kingdom. An amberman's guild was established in Gdansk in 1477, marking the beginning of an exceptionally dynamic development of the amber craft, which culminated in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was then that Gdansk offered "noble crafts" (and amber craft was classified among them) conditions fostering their development, and that people understood the great sidnificance of artistic amber craft for increasing the splendour of their town and as a contribution towards European culture.
 
Baltic Amber Casket museumsecond half of baltic amber casket from museum
 
  
The processing of amber developed in an unparalleled way. Master ambermen from Gdansk learnt the secrets of glyptics (sculpting and engraving of miniature reliefs) and figural sculpture, as well as the construction of great mosaic surfaces from amber tiles.
 
antique amber cameoantique amber cameo tile 2
  
 
They were famous for their unequalled skills. [Amber] works worthy of kings and princes were made in abundance and used as diplomatic gifts. Some of them may still be admired at the exhibition shown in the Castle Museum in Malbork and in numerous European museums.
 
The masterly sills of 17th century amber craftsmen also manifested in the preservation of the natural beauty of amber and using it in a way that became prototypical for great European art styles. The "clouds," inclusions and porosity of structure, which are typical of amber, become a part of the picture which was antique in theme and baroque in form.
Giacomo Fantuzzi, a papal legate, wrote in his "Diary of a European Journey" (1652): "In Gdansk both white and yellow amber is processed ingeniously, and the latter is much more precious, as it is used for minute figurines, which are then set in yellow amber-they are made so skillfully that they seem to be alice and you just cannot but admire how the master craftsmen were able to sculpt them with the help of a small ordinary knife."
 
 
example of amber bas reliefamber bas relief
 
 
A bas-relief from the interior of a 17th century Gdansk casket.

Today amber is the basic [representative] gemstone in Poland, decorating a great majority of the jewellery made, and jewelry is an exceptional cultural phenomenon-objects made from exceptional materials, precious metals and extraordinary precious stones used for the decoration of clothes and body.
 
The[se adornments frequently signify] the owner's lay and religious status, position, refinement and intellectual level. They may also be used as magical amulets protecting against bad luck, and talismans which are meant to attract good luck.
Various beautiful colour varieties of amber area used in the contemporary artistic and mass-scale produced Polish jewelry. Some works call for the contemplation of the beauty of the nuggets used. Made by talented artists, fine and inventive, they are constantly in demand. They are marked by original design, masterly craftsmanship & uniqueness.
 
 
baroque amber jewelry antiquity
 
 
Perhaps the most beautiful are those goods which show amber not only preserving and respecting, but even underlining the extraordinary achievements of nature.
 
 antique amber earringsantique amber earrings tile 2
 
 
In such items the setting and the amber complement each other, creating an exceptional work worth admiration and desire. Similarly as all other types of jewelry, jewellery decorated with original amber stones is strongly influenced by fashion. It is enough for the general public to be impressed by a show of good creations on beautiful models, or even a TV broadcast from Paris or great jewellery fairs to demand similar works in every jewelry shop. However, beautiful ornaments created with amber are unique, elite goods.
 
amber blue mud ring
amber blue mud ring tile 2
 
This results from the wealth of colour and form of the amber stones. Every stone is unique. Such jewellery is addressed to individualists who are sensitive to the beauty of nature and appreciate the intentions of the author, who, disregarding popular trends, left fragments of the weathered amber cortex intact and protected it from destruction.
 
 
amber art brooch 1
amber art brooch 2
 
Such a wearer is also able to use the work purchased for a variety of his or her own purposes,
changing a brooch into a pendant, clasp or decoration of a hat or bag.

 
amber intaglio example artistic
Amber is a good material for the difficult art of glyptics-that is why it is often used by eminent contemporary artists. Glyptics is the art of sculpting and engraving miniature works in precious and semi-precious stones, which was known already in antiquity. Works made in this way are called intaglios and cameos.
Example of intaglio.
Intaglios are works with an incised picture; intaglios and engravings in amber are made a the back of transparent lenses and tiles. Cameos are works with a raised design. Most intaglios and cameos show portraits, images of animals and genre or mythological scenes.
 
Cameos are made in two-colour stones, which are often found among amber types. Using such a material the artist obtains a multi-layer, light bas-relief on a darker background. Such miniature works of art are unique jewelry items-they are fine and exclusive.
baltic amber angel cameo antique 1amber angel cameo example antique 2
Example of cameo or camina.
 
The making of cameos from amber, which is a delicate and brittle material, requires a sound knowledge of its structure, skilful and delicate use of the tools and, what is most important, a very good eye for the right nugget. The most important position is still occupied by goods originating from the oldest traditions: amber pendants, necklaces and bracelets. The standard of the jewelry is increasing, as the jewelry industry is constantly modernized. The beauty of the necklaces may result from precise surface finishing, colour uniformity of the nuggets, their shape or multi-layer cut showing the special play of light in amber. The beauty of a necklace may also result from the variety of amber shown in it.
 
Silver jewelry decorated with amber is a Polish specialty, much in demand. It reaches all the countries of the world.
Manufacturers of amber goods keep increasing the quality of their jewellery, are careful about the details and precision of craftsmanship and adjust designs to the changing of fashion. Not hesitating to leave fragments of the natural amber cortex and combining the stone with other organic materials they obtain new, interesting compositions. They successfully compete on the world markets, constantly increasing the sales of their products.

modern amber bead jewelry with sterling silver

 
One of the reasons for this is continuous comprehensive promotion of amber, which arouses a widespread interest in amber and the dissemination of sound knowledge about this exceptionally beautiful stone typical of [associated with] Poland. For centuries visitors to Poland have been mentioning amber as a characteristic specialty of the country they visited.
 
The contemporary amber craft returns to the tradition of great decorative forms dating back to earlier times. Excellent examples of the trend include the altar in St. Bridgid's church in Gdansk and reconstructed Amber Chamber at Tsarskoye Selo.
 
contemporary amber jewelry artistic
 
The initiators of the altar which is being made in Gdansk based their idea on the use of natural amber from Polish deposits. They have already finished a monstrance (174cm, 32kg) in the form of the Tree of Life, made from exceptionally beautiful amber drop constituting a reservaculum, and the amber robe on the painting of the Holy Virgin with the Infant Jesus, made from a unique variety of white amber. See also "A Brief History of Our Lady of Czestochowa." The folds of the robe reach outside the painting frame and are going to be entwined in the great three-dimensional composition filling the presbytery.
 
Gdansk History Museum exhibits a collection of contemporary amber works made in Lucjan Myrta's workshop. Their form, scale and craftsmanship refer to the old art. Employees of the workshop are currently working on Marie Antoinette's "Amber Treasury" modeled on a wardrobe belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette. It is going to be the biggest piece of furniture in the world history of amber craft.

amber frieze lucjan myrta sculpture

 
It will be decorated with reliefs outside and inside and will weigh more than 500kg.
In the times when amber craft was undergoing its greatest development, master craftsmen educated in Gdansk made the entire amber decoration for the Berlin office of the King of Prussia, Frederick I. Almost finished, the work was given as a gift by the founder's son to Tsar Peter I. Thirty years later, increased in size and enriched owing to the work of eminent artists from all over Europe, it became a unique work-the Amber Chamber in Catherine's Palace at Tsarkoye Selo. Lost during the last world war, it was reconstructed by Russian master craftsmen.
 
The beauty of amber shown on a grand architectural scale fascinates all those having a chance to see it.
 
amber chamber reconstruction detail
 
The filial of the frame from the Northern Wall of the reconstructed Amber Chamber: trophy and a biblical scene showing David and Saul.
 
It was no doubt the haste resulting from the need to finish the reconstruction of the Amber Chamber on time as well as the great technological progress in the pressing and colouring of Baltic amber which stand behind the use of coloured and pressed amber in some fragments of the work.
 
Fashion for "cognac" or green amber in jewellery forms is also one of the reasons behind the colouring of amber. However, the beauty of natural amber may not be falsified or replaced with stones obtained as a result of the use of the latest colouring or pressing techniques. Colouring is a thermal process of clarification, hardening and changing the color of amber. Pressing takes place during technological process involving the joining together of fine amber granules or even amber powder to make bigger pieces-raw material for further manufacture.
 
It seems that [Baltic] amber is able to renew, as its properties (apart from the shape) do not change (quoted after M. Ganzelewski). 
 
amber chamber detail with david

The method of examining amber through analysis of its spectral curve is infrared (IRS analysis) shows functional groups which are identical in natural and pressed amber (quoted after B. Kosmowska-Ceranowicz). As results from current research, the properties of pressed amber are very similar to the properties of natural amber. It is also now technically possible to obtain pressed or "scaled" amber in all natural hues and varieties present in natural amber.
 
It is impossible not to see the beauty of natural Baltic amber, and it is impossible not to fall under its spell or not to see the attractiveness of jewelry decorated with amber. However, this does not apply to amber surrogates and falsifications. We must expect that in line with the principle most people follow, i.e. "appearances rather than the real thing" demand for goods created from cheaper pressed amber will increase.
 
However, the buyers must be conscious of their choice. To maintain its high position, Baltic amber must be reliably marked in trade, consistent with the classification drawn up by amber experts on the basis of rules prepared by CIBJO (International Confederation of Jewellery, Silverware, Diamonds, Pearls and Stones).
 
It is obvious that the great secret power is present only in natural Baltic amber. Watching the changes undergoing in amber, we may well say that natural amber "lives" and that is is also the source of its exceptionality, mystery and beauty.
                  
          —Gabriela Gierlowska
 
Reprinted by permission of Gabriela Gierlowska, Amber Woman of the Year, Amberif 03.