Ever since Jurassic Park made it famous (the dinos were created using blood from a mosquito trapped in an ancient piece of Amber), Amber has intrigued people. Strictly speaking, it is not a stone at all but is a fossilised resin – exuded from an unnamed pine tree millions of years ago. Though Baltic ones are thought to be fossil resins from sciadopityaceae family trees that were abundant in north Europe. And as I recently learnt, from a trip to Ambermart in Gdansk, Poland, the birthplace of Amber, it is made into a variety of decorative objects, jewellery and even used in medicine.
Myths Around Amber
The lure of amber dates back to many centuries ago. Local doctors believe that the resin helps to balance the emotions, clear the mind and release negative energy. It eases stress by clearing phobias and fears, but more than anything else, it is a lovely warm stone to wear.
The Greek myth around it is rather fascinating too. Apparently, when Phaëton, son of Helios (the Sun), was killed, his mourning sisters became poplar trees, and their tears became elektron, or amber. In fact, this name of amber also illustrates amber’s ability to bear a static electricity charge.
Ambling for Amber
Amber is found globally, but is more prominent in regions where rocks of the Cretaceous age are found. These deposits are aplenty in the Baltic region – specifically in Prussia – along the Samland Coast, that lies to the west of Konigsberg. Nearly 90% of the world’s produce is still located in this region.
So how is amber mined? Mostly, pieces of amber are wrenched off the bed of the oceans in this region and since amber floats on water, these are usually collected by hand. In Gdansk, where I went, the beach glistens with tiny pieces of amber (that locals think nothing about, because it is just so abundant!) Dredging or diving are also ways in which amber is collected commercially. Amber is also mined, both in open areas as well as in underground mines called ‘galleries’. Once raw amber has been collected (and the size ranges from as small as a golf ball to as large as a football at times), the specks of the earth are carefully removed. The opaque crust around the amber is cleaned by revolving the pieces in barrels of sand and water to gently slough off the rocky deposits.
After this, the amber is ready to be polished. I polished some using sandpaper of different grades – but it is done using machines for a professional finish.
Sometimes, the impurities within the resin make it very prized indeed (yeah, I am harking back to Jurassic Park again!). These impurities (called inclusions) can include fossilized insects, mosquitoes, leaves, buds, sand crystals – anything at all. Some inclusions lend a completely different hue to the amber. Pyrites, for example, make the amber appear blue. Bony amber, that looks like yellow ivory, owes its cloudy opacity to numerous tiny bubbles inside the resin. Speaking of colour, while it is natural and mostly, a yellow-orange-brown-rust colour, it can also be whitish or pale lemon yellow to dark chocolate brown, grey or black. Red amber (called cherry amber), green amber and blue amber are rather highly prized and priced.
Innovating with Amber
The Art7 design studio in Gdansk is a leading hub of contemporary and groundbreaking innovations in amber jewellery. Led by Wojciech Kalandyk, the studio has worked experimentally with amber for many years. Their speciality is to discover new unexpected qualities of the material – in structure, shape and colour. When I spoke with Mr Kalandyk, he was bubbling with enthusiasm about the experiments he is doing. “Amber’s most popular use is for ornamentation—easily cut and polished, it can be transformed into beautiful jewellery. The ART7 GOLDEN LEGEND collection of necklaces has amber covered in 24-carat gold. The collection focuses on underlining naturalness and exceptionality of amber – that is why it comprises also designs incorporating natural white amber, so-called “chalk” amber. For our new “Black Dress” collection, we heat treat the stones’ surfaces which, as a result, change their colour to black. This ‘black amber’ is interpreted in a unique style and in unconventional formal combinations with silver. Sometimes the result is an archaic pendant on a slender gold-plated chain to wear around the neck, other times it’s a truffle-shaped stone on a ring for the finger. We are convinced that modern design solutions based on natural features of amber constitute a contemporary revival of amber in jewellery design.”
It is clear then that the revival of Poland’s rich amber tradition and its popularity around the world depends on a contemporary approach to this intriguing material.
Text and images by Aarti Kapur Singh