Amber Personality of the Century Wieslaw Gierlowski Celebrates 80th Birthday by Piotr Kowalczuk
Wieslaw Gierlowski is one of the world's foremost Baltic amber experts.
He is one of the two persons who can vaunt the title of Amber Personality of the Century. Wieslaw Gierlowski was born in the town of Lida in the Vilnius region. An economist and art historian by education, conservator and amber jeweller by avocation. The golden nuggets which lay on the beaches in war-ruined Gdansk and along the coastline, which he saw right after the Second World War, combined his avocation with what he knew best. �Amber has never let people down,� he likes to say; it never let him down either. He is the man behind the greatest number of books, articles and reports on amber. Mr. Gierlowski is an unquestioned authority, an expert in his field and in many restoration efforts. To describe all the works he had undertaken would require a hefty book. He was the co-founder and the first president of the Management of the Amber Association in Poland. As a world-class expert, he supported the team which reconstructed the Amber Chamber in Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg. He has made and still makes works which find their place in museum exhibitions. In spite of the passage of time, changes in positions and functions, Mr. Gierlowski takes up his work with a youthful fervour and passion.
Where does his strength come from? The answer can only be: from his heart of amber. As a young man during World War II, Wieslaw Gierlowski joined the Polish resistance Union for Armed Struggle (later the Polish Home Army). He took part in the operation to liberate Vilnius in July 1944 and received the Cross of the Valiant for his efforts during the battle. He managed to avoid imprisonment by the Red Army and deportation to Kaluga, where most of the Home Army soldiers from the Vilnius area had been exiled, and began his underground struggle within the NIE (anti-communist) organisation. After a few months, in March 1945, Gierlowski was informed on and incarcerated in Minsk. After a month in jail he was released as ill with typhoid without hope for recovery. However, with the help of his mother and the underground network of physicians, he managed to get over the illness, and as soon as in May 1945, he arrived in Szczecinek (in the north-east of Poland) in a repatriation transport. Here, after three years he graduates from secondary school and went to college at the University of Commerce in Poznan. During and after college he devoted himself to his profession while avoiding political involvement on any side. Gierlowski�s first post-war decade was full of intense work in finance and accountancy, so very far from his future role as art historian, conservator and master of artistic craftsmanship.
The first attempt at rounding amber beads on a spinning wheel from the Kurpie region.
Only seven families were working in amber in post-war Gdansk
As a young man during World War II, Wieslaw Gierlowski joined the Polish resistance Union for Armed Struggle (later the Polish Home Army). He took part in the operation to liberate Vilnius in July 1944 and received the Cross of the Valiant for his efforts during the battle. He managed to avoid imprisonment by the Red Army and deportation to Kaluga, where most of the Home Army soldiers from the Vilnius area had been exiled, and began his underground struggle within the NIE (anti-communist) organisation. After a few months, in March 1945, Gierlowski was informed on and incarcerated in Minsk. After a month in jail he was released as ill with typhoid without hope for recovery. However, with the help of his mother and the underground network of physicians, he managed to get over the illness, and as soon as in May 1945, he arrived in Szczecinek (in the north-east of Poland) in a repatriation transport. Here, after three years he graduates from secondary school and went to college at the University of Commerce in Poznan. During and after college he devoted himself to his profession while avoiding political involvement on any side. Gierlowski�s first post-war decade was full of intense work in finance and accountancy, so very far from his future role as art historian, conservator and master of artistic craftsmanship.
When Wieslaw Gierlowski arrived in post-war Gdansk, the city was a depressing sight. The beaches, however, were covered with streaks of amber nuggets. �You cannot even begin to imagine the sight, today it would be impossible even after the greatest storms. But who thought of amber then?� he says filled with emotion.
Since those days he has held on to a single piece of amber that remains very important to him. He called it the Bachelor. It�s larger than most nuggets, but its true value lies in the magic cave one can see in its section. A true mystery, as with everything that is related to amber. �My wife used the photos [of this nugget] in one of her booklets. I have held on to it because it just charmed me with its mystery. That�s how it was and that�s how it is over these couple of decades,� adds Mr. Gierlowski.
Kawalerska ("The Bachelor") � amber nugget discovered in the Northern Port in Gdansk in 1968
When Wieslaw Gierlowski took over as manager of the Cepelia folk art retail chain in 1957, there were 7 families who dealt with amber in the entire Polish Coast. He can still remember the names of many of them: Antoni Biskupski, who survived Dachau and the communist internal revenue system; pre-war journeyman craftsman Walenty Czerwonka, J�zef Grodzki and Antoni Krula of Gdynia; Leonowicz, Konkel and Mroch of Gdansk. When Gierlowski began to develop the amber processing business, he set up a specialist co-operative called ART REGION. This co-operative grew to include 3,000 members, including over 500 amber jewellers. Taking Cepelia�s statutory goals in artistic craftsmanship seriously, he graduated art history as an extra-mural student (with an excellent grade, however) at the Mickiewicz University in Poznan. And from then on he found it difficult to reconcile the declared goals of the co-operative with its sloppy practice.
Wieslaw Gierlowski started his own business in January 1971. He did restoration services, renovation, the reconstruction of fragments of historical artefacts and the production of amber artwork. He ran his business alone. In 1973, his wife Gabriela joined him. Working for the Historical Museum of the City of Gdansk was a true challenge. The museum�s first silver collection: 300 haphazardly purchased objects, was prepared for exhibition thanks to Mr. Gierlowski�s work.
�Nothing can replace amber works, though,� he says. �First and foremost its visual beauty; it�s pleasant to be around. It�s warm, delicate to the touch, it is not rough, it smells beautiful. Not many people know that it constantly gives off a scent at the temperature of the human body, only the scent is below the threshold of the human sense of smell. Thus, it creates a positive aura without interfering. It satisfies all our senses, only it doesn�t rattle needlessly,� adds Mr Wieslaw with a smile.
�It is easy to shape. Working with it is a pleasure. When working with amber we benefit from the natural transformation of matter which nature has provided for aeons. In contrast, working in metals both when sculpting and in their conservation is dangerous due to the aggressive, caustic bases and acids (for example the dangerous aqua regia) and the temperature and the exhaust gases.�
To my question about whether his young successors should take greater care not to have their work confined to just business, Mr. Gierlowski replies, �Sure you have to treat it as a business nowadays. It�s the economist in me speaking. We can�t take care of everything for everybody. You can�t put everything on the shoulders of the manufacturers: from mining to promotion and export. The state has to create the proper environment.�
Terrace of Arthur�s Court in Gdansk 1961
�I was lucky,� says Mr. Gierlowski. �I began at a favourable time, when enormous amounts of raw amber were being excavated during the great harbour investments. Today, we have to get to the amber from the Vistula Delta.� Up to now only 1972 saw the issuing of 14 licenses for prospecting for amber in the area of the eastern districts of Gdansk. When the licenses were issued, 150 tonnes of amber were collected in a single year. This greatly exceeded current needs. Everyone made stocks, depending on the money and the foresight they had. This allowed Mr. Wieslaw Gierlowski to produce large objects usually inspired by his conservator leanings. One model was the beautiful cup of King John III Sobieski, who received it from the burghers of Vienna after his successful military relief. Today it adorns the album cover of the collection of the Palace at Wilan�w.
�Knowing that amber has been with humankind since its beginnings,� continues Mr. Gierlowski, �the discovery of amber excavation sites from the 13th Century BC in Siedlnica near Leszno confirms the truth which was discovered already by primitive humans: that people have never been disillusioned with amber. It is friendly to the human being. There were times when interest waned, but it never disappeared completely. We can find amber artefacts all over the world. Human beliefs and legends about amber only confirm this.�
Cup with a nautilus and amber dolphins playing with the globe,
modelled on the work by H. Kienle from the collection at the Palace in Wilan�w near Warsaw
Amber has always surprised people.
To prove this, Mr. Gierlowski relates an interesting anecdote. Two days after reading a paper by Prof. Kosmowska-Ceranowicz, in which she stated that no evidence of amber had been found in the Czyman�w settlement, Mr. Gierlowski and his wife went to the area of the pumped-storage power station under construction by Lake Zarnowieckie.
When they got there they bought, in Czyman�w itself, a 1,540-gram amber nugget dug up by the construction workers. Now it is the largest nugget deposited in the Archaeological Museum in Gdansk.
�Amber has got its secrets. Sometimes it allows us to discover them,� ends Mr. Gierlowski.
I�ve asked Wieslaw Gierlowski, �Have we been born with a collective silver spoon in our mouths here in Pomerania?�
"We have the gift of amber. Now we have to be able to use it. You have to act like a capital if you want to be a capital. Education, scientific research, mining, new technologies, design, marketing...�
Happy Birthday, Dear Mr. Gierlowski! We wish you further intellectual quests and unyielding youthful passion.
Wieslaw Gierlowski speaking with Iraida Bott, the Scientific Director at Tsarskoye Selo in the Amber Chamber
This article was written by Piotr Kowalczuk, Amberif Fair Press Officer
Photographs: Wieslaw Gierlowski�s private collection