About Baltic amber

baltic amber

Amber is fossil resin produced by pine trees which grew in Northern Europe about 50 million years ago. The resin was washed out of the forest floor by large rivers and transported south towards the sea. In the course of time the resin was transformed to amber due to processes of polymerization and oxidation.


Formation

Amber truly possesses a life-giving energy. It takes its beginning in luxuriant forests as old as the mother earth itself. Later waters and masses of ground fell on them. However the treasures of those times survived preserved in it, therefore amber contains joy and happiness. From ancient times people living in the territory of our motherland used to dug amber out if its burying places and enrich it with something from their own lives. They would inscribe pieces of amber with their feelings along with nice wishes, put them on strings, and give as gifts to their beloved ones so that they could accompany them in this or another life.

50 million years ago

If you ask any Lithuanian about the origin of Baltic amber, most probably you will hear a legend of an unhappy love between queen Jurate and fisherman Kastytis. God Perkunas, after finding out that the mortal son of earth dared to touch the Queen of the Baltic’s, threw down a bolt of lightning, which shattered the amber palace on the bottom of the sea and drowned Kastytis together with his boat. Ever since waves have been washing ashore pieces of amber – fragments of the palace and after storms the shore is strewn smaller pieces – Jurate’s tears.

Scientists say that amber (or succinite) is a fossil pine resin that has achieved a stable state through oxidation, action of micro-organisms and other processes. If we want to image how everything happened, we should travel some tens of millions of years back to the southern regions of the present-day Scandinavia and nearby regions of the bed of the Baltic Sea (the formation of the Baltic Sea began only 13 thousand years ago) where conifer forests grew more than 55 million years ago.

The climate became warmer and conifer trees started to exude big amounts of resin. Any smallest wound caused excessive flow of resin. Of course, today there is no one type of pine which had similar characteristics to those of the fossil trees.

The transformation of resin into amber continued from the moment of secretion until its burial into Sambia deposit. Due to various processes resins underwent different changes and a material which was not similar to the original resins was formed. Later Baltic amber was washed out and brought to different river backwaters. The layer of Baltic amber was covered by delta sediments and survives to the present day. One cubic meter of this rock, which is called blue ground, contains from 0,5 to 2,5 kilogram Baltic amber. The biggest known deposit of amber is 7-8 meter thick layer of such ground 30-40 cm below sea level near Palvininkai. It is thought that in the whole region of western Sambia Peninsular there are several hundred thousand tons of Baltic amber, and in Courland Lagoon, near Juodkrante, 3000 hectares of amber-containing ground have been found.

In this region of Baltic sea approximately 90% of all amber (fossil resins) in the world are found.


Morphology

Observing natural Baltic amber pieces we can understand the way resins had been dripping and gliding. Some Baltic amber has regular shape of a drop, others hardened into icicles, much of resins moved by a trunk on the ground and hardened into lumps or gathered under a bark or just in a trunk.

There are two morphological species of Baltic amber. One is interior lens formed from initial resins in various parts of bark and wood, the other one is superficial icicles , drops or trunk amber formed by outpouring of resins along the surface. 80% of amber is superficial Baltic amber. Most of inclusions are in this one. Good- looking morphological species of Baltic amber are rare. Only fragments of them broken and rubbed are usually found. Knowing their own features it is easy to define the species.

In a trunk resins are in particular channel system perfectly isolated from other vessels of wood; pressed tightly (to 20 ATM); that is why after breaking channels they out pour easily.

Wooden lenses (2%) are transparent because their resins were pressed tightly and isolated from exterior impact.

Under-bark lenses (7%) used to form when resins flowed under a bark, which had torn off a wood. Under-bark cavity formed their contours. The imprints of cambium fibrous tissue are always found on the surface of under-bark lenses.

Bark amber (3%) formed in a thick amber wood bark when its lamina’s moved aside. Bark Baltic amber lenses have a very specific irregular shape with cut brims, which were formed by the contours of bark lamina’s that moved apart. The imprints in both sides are characteristic to them: emerged-in one side, sunken in the same shape-in another side.

Amber icicles (12%) are divided into micro-and macro-icicles. Micro-icicles are “amber in amber”-first out poured dozes of resins tinned in macro-icicles- rudiments of massive icicles. Macro-icicles used to form when resins flowed uniformly from a wounded piece of a tree. Macro-icicles are main receptacle of vegetable and cattle remains; more than 95% of all inclusions are found in them. Majority of icicles has clear striking signs, which means they have been hanging on thin branches (2-8cm in diameter).

Amber drops (5%) are the overdose of resins that broke away from the streams, which used to flow through icicles and trunk. They could be different size; their conservation is dissimilar and their structure is usually deformed. Drops flattened by falling are most frequently found (about 30 %). Regular shape drops are very rare – they could be formed when resins flowed from slits of wood or when they fell into the water.

Trunk amber is morphological amber specie, which is the most plentiful and various (58%). Resins out poured on the surface of a trunk made big accumulations that had flowed down slowly. Under the heat of the sun they have been melting and hardening for many times. Volatile components had been volatilized because of heat, however not all gas could have been volatilized from marshy resins mass. Different color streams where mixed when resins were flowing through a trunk, that is why superficial amber obtained texture of various color. The biggest pieces of amber that have been found was of trunk amber (weighing several kilograms).


Inclusions

Tree resins were very fluid and solidified very quickly through evaporation. A little fly or ant caught by the sticky resin remained trapped for centuries, this is how inclusions were formed. About 3 thousand representatives of fossil fauna have been found in Baltic amber, 10-15% of which are presently existing species of insects that have not evolved much since.

Most common inclusions are insects (86,7%) and Arachnids (11,6%), while animals of other classes occur only in 1,7% and plants in 0,4% of cases.

Most insects are perfectly preserved inside of Baltic amber – the tiniest hairs and scales could be seen. Most of the insects were entrapped while being alive – sometimes were blown by the wind, sometimes a tree exuded bigger quantity of resin while they were sitting on the trunk. Only small, mostly forest-living, species can be found, because bigger insects were strong enough to escape and water-living insects rarely got entrapped. Those insects that lived in dry places or did not fly in spring, when trees were exuding resin and processes of tree metabolism took place, are almost not found in amber.

Of all Arachnids found in amber most common “prisoners” are forest-living spiders that used to live on plants, under bark. 267 varieties of spiders, mostly tropical and subtropical, have been found in amber.

Besides spiders the products of their activity – fine webs with particles of wood or dew-drops, even their prey that had been sucked out and became dry – very often occur in pieces of amber.

Fragments of plants that are found in amber are most often small leaves, needles, flowers and their parts, sometimes – small twigs and fruits. Of cryptogamic plants most often are liverworts that grew in subtropical climate and of gymnosperms – pine needles. The most often species of angiospermae are oak, beech and maple. Other Arachnids found in amber are scorpions, false scorpions and ticks. Discoveries of winged insects in amber are very erratic. Some of these insects, e.g. orthoptera are a biggest rarity, others, like dipterous, make up the biggest part of inclusions.

Beside that, plenty of spores, mainly of mushrooms and green moss, and pollen are found.

In addition to plants and arthropoda, other animals or their fragments – several oligocenes (?), nematodes and other small worms, 9 varieties of land mollusc, flea – are found even though are very rare.


Colors

This is what Roman scientist Pliny the Elder wrote on the value of amber at the very beginning of the first millennium:

“…neither white amber, that was used as a fragrant incense, nor turbid yellow or dark was as valuable as transparent, slightly glossy amber. If you held a piece of such amber to a fire, you would see only the reflection of, rather than the flame itself (…) Most popular was transparent amber having the shade of Falernian wine. It was the most expensive (…) Amber was made whiter by immersing it into preheated goat fat with alkaline dye.”

Usually Baltic amber is yellow or bright yellowish. The colors of Baltic amber range from white, yellow, brown to red. There is greenish, bluish, gray and even black amber. Even more subtle shades and combinations are among them. Amber can be absolutely transparent or absolutely opaque. Amber is not always one-colored: the unique combinations of two or more colors and shades, patterns (sometimes they form the most brilliant compositions of art) can be found. For these reasons amber becomes attractive, charming and unique.

Tree resins are the main amber material. They are transparent, bright yellow-the color of fresh honey. This color (clear amber) remains after the resin is transformed into amber, however variations in the resins could affect it:

Various admixtures and main structural amber elements-very small turpentine gas bubbles change the color of amber. In a certain density and form they refract the light, which is seen as some kind of color.

Transparent (with a yellowish shade). This color of amber could be called “primary”- fresh tree resins are like this. About 10% of amber are transparent, but this is mostly found in small pieces. Big transparent amber pieces are especially rare and valuable. The shade of transparency could change from yellowish to dark red; it depends on the degree of amber oxidation. Inclusions are usually found in foliated transparent amber.

Red. natural red shade is especially rare (0.5%). Red shades can vary from orange to dark black. This color of amber is mostly obtained artificially by heating transparent amber (oxidizing it).

Yellow. This is the most common color of amber (about 70% of all colors). As a rule this amber is cloudy, not transparent, it occurs in various shades of yellow. This amber is an inherent part of national female costume.

White. White amber is very rare (about 1-2% of all amber). Usually this amber is distinguished by its variety of textures and “natural ornamentation”. Amber of this color is also called “Royal” or “Bony”. It could be with some “colorful intrusions” (yellow, black, blue, green, transparent amber) with interesting patterns

Green. Greenish amber is also rare (about 2% of all colors). Green transparent amber is very interesting, as it has “sugar structure”.

Blue. This is the rarest shade of amber and the most valuable (only 0.2% of all amber). Most Frequently this shade is found in white amber.

Black. This is a frequent color of amber (about 15%). It is attractive because of it is natural – the largest part of black amber consists of the remains of tree barks and vegetable matter.


From soil and water

Until the 13th century seacoast inhabitants collected amber from the seashore and later they learned how to obtain amber by combing the seabed with nets. Most often they worked at night lighting the shore with a barrel of tar put on a hill or on a tree. Later bigger fishing nets and in shallow places – special hooks were used for this purpose. With the appearance of the diving suit amber was collected directly from the ground of the sea.

More serious excavations of amber began in 1854 when while deepening the fairway in the Curonian Bay near Juodkrante big deposits of amber were found. Stantien and Becker, two Jewish businessmen from the Curonian Bay region, founded a company that soon became rich and in 1857 began mechanized excavation of amber – with the help of steam dredgers. It was here that the famous R.Klebbs’ collection, which attracted the attention of world anthropologists, was found. People became interested and started to talk and write about this place and about this amber. The industry activity was in full swing. 30-50 tons of amber was excavated per year. After some time the owners of the company bought another amber producing mine in Palvininkai (now Yantarny, Kaliningrad Province) and built an amber-processing factory. It is not surprising that these two merchants became one of the richest industrialists in eastern Prussia, because the Palvininkai deposit contains 90% of the world’s amber. Even now 500-700 tons of this mineral per year are excavated in an open mine using modern mining equipment. In Juodkrante locals still find pieces of amber while digging out the potatoes in their fields that had been enriched with the slit from the bay.

There were many attempts to resume the mining of amber in the Curonian Bay, but the mining methods were primitive and the attempts were quite unsuccessful. For example Count Tiskevicius tried to excavate amber in swamps not far from Palanga. Even though only few hundreds of kilograms of amber were obtained, it was here that the “Palanga treasure” was gathered.

Fishermen of the Curonian Bay used to comb amber from the bottom of the sea with so called “kesele”, a net dragged by two boats. The net had special hooks that scratched the seabed and lifted pieces of amber. Then amber got caught by the net. This method of production of amber was used only in Curonian Isthmus and was not known elsewhere. At the end of the 19th century wealthy merchants abandoned the Curonian Bay deposit and its exploitation was resumed only recently. The amber-bearing layer with an area of 3000 hectares was reached while deepening the fair water of the Klaipeda Seaport. Even though many methods of amber production have been used throughout history, and those introduced in the last century were very perspective and efficient, collecting of amber pieces from the shore remains the most popular and lasting. Even today amber hunters (about 30 persons) on the shore of the Baltic Sea near Karklë or Melnragë, if the cast of the net is successful, can catch 30-50 kg of amber.


Treatment

Nobody can tell when exactly people started using amber in the manufacture of adornments and amulets and started conferring magic powers. It is known that it was processed using flint knifes, cutters, scraping tools, whetstones and sand. The oldest known amber article dates back to the end of the Stone Age. It is an amber plate found in a reindeer hunters’ camp near Hamburg. European museums have many works of art made of amber. In the Baltic lands in the New Stone Age and in the old Bronze Age raw amber was processed in three major centers – in Sambia Peninsula, Prussia; in the village of Sventoji, Lithuania; and in the villages around the Luban lake, Latvia.

In the early Middle Ages amber rosaries and small crosses were made. The use of amber for making of works of art became especially popular in the 17th – 18th centuries. By that time artisans learned how to cut and polish and shape amber on a lathe. The biggest part of famous works was manufactured in the Dancig workshop.

In the 9th-13th centuries, with the spread of handicrafts in Lithuania, artisans specializing in the processing of amber appeared. Palanga was one of the most important ancient amber-processing centers. Before World War I in Palanga normally 20,000 kg of raw amber were processed per year and 300-500 workers were employed in this industry. There were also many individual artisans and an amber factory in which about 80 workers manually made different adornments, cigarette holders, crosses, rosaries. Amber beads were exported to African and Asian countries and brooches and cuff links and other articles were exported to Scandinavia, Holland and France.

There was a time when artisans used amber only as a raw material. Even if forgetting all those flowers and bunches of grapes or ornaments that were glued together from hollowed and polished amber, 75% of a biggest natural piece of amber were wasted. Nobody thought of natural beauty of amber – it was pressed, melted and colored with pigments. After World War II designer Feliksas Daukantas gave rise to a new trend in amber processing. He encouraged artists to show amber’s natural beauty.


Qualities

Baltic amber is conifer resin that lost the largest part of its volatile components during fossilization. Different amber pieces are found from crumbs of 1-2mm to bars one meter long and about 10kg weight. Few big amber pieces are known – if a piece is bigger it is more rare. The biggest amber piece is 47cm long and 9.817kg weight. It is in the Berlin Natural Science Museum. The biggest piece of amber in our museum weighs 2.054 kg. Amber distinguishes itself by its big variety of colors : scientists count about 250 various colors and shades. Pliny the Elder (23-79 years A.C.) wrote about the possibility to obtain any color of amber by processing it in a special way. Now heating (amber gets red shade) and clarifying are the most popular ways of changing the color.

Amber luminescence in yellow or greenish color exposed by cathode and ultra-violet rays. Amber rubbed into woolen fabric obtains negative charge and attracts small paper pieces. Index of amber light refraction n=1.53-1.55. Like other minerals that refract light weakly amber can display its range of colors only when it is polished into convex surfaces; geometrical amber surfaces are usually not effective. Amber hardness is measured according to the Moss scale at 2-2.5; sometimes it increases up to 3 (e.g. diamond – 10). Specific gravity of amber is low and fluctuates from 1.05 to 2 and it floats in salt water. Specific gravity of absolutely transparent amber is 1.1; specific gravity of white amber is 0.93-0.96 – it drifts in pure water. Amber melting point is about 375 o C In the air amber burns with a bright strong smoke flame diffusing a pleasant fragrance reminding pine-tree resins.

Amber never melts completely in any solvent: 20-25% of amber material melts in methyl alcohol; in ether 18-23%; about 23% in acetone; about 205 in chloroform; 21% in benzene, etc.

Organic amber structure is not monolithic. Like fresh tree resins it consists of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Frequently it contains 79% of C, 10.5% of O and 10.5% of H. According to O.Helm amber has from 3% to 8% of Amber.


Amber routes

Asirian ruler Ashur-Nasir-Apal send his people to the land of amber where amber is washed ashore like copper…
Asirian inscription on obelisk from 883 BC

Scientists presume that the trade in amber started as early as in New Stone Age. Amber, obtained in major excavation centers in Jutland and on eastern Baltic Coast began to spread in central Europe reaching even Egypt. Baltic amber beads were found in 3400-2400 BC pharaoh tombs in Tethys (?) pyramid. German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who in 1871-1890 excavated Troy in addition to other artifacts found amber beads. Scientists established that they were made from amber that had been brought from the Baltic Coast in 3000 BC. This archaeologist has found Baltic amber also in cupola tombs of Mycenaean culture built on Crete Island in 1600-800 BC.

In the 1st – 3rd centuries there was an intensive trade in amber with Roman Empire and its colonies and this led to the formation of so called “amber road”. Amber was treasured and called “northern gold” in Greece and in the Roman Empire. In times of the Emperor Nero (54-68 AD) the value of a small amber statuette was greater than that of a young healthy slave. Transparent reddish or golden amber was especially valuable and was used in manufacture of adornments and small implements and utensils. Opaque amber was used only in the manufacture of incenses. Pliny the Elder in his work “Naturalis Historia” describes those times and tells a story about one Roman rider who managed to bring the quantity of amber with which it was possible to decorate not only an amphitheater but also gladiators’ clothes and arms. The biggest piece weighed over 4 kg. Amber destined for the Roman Empire was stored in intermediate points. Three such warehouses with 3 tons of amber have been found in the neighborhood of Wroclaw. At around the end of the 3rd century new trade roads to the East by the Dnieper, Dniester and Prut Rivers have been found and relations with Slavic settlements, Roman colonies on the coast of the Black Sea and later with the Byzantine Empire and Arab countries established.

In the 12th century crusaders began their attacks on the Baltic Coast settlements with the time monopolized amber excavation and most of amber processing and trade.

Under 1264 agreement with the Sambian Archbishop all lands rich in amber were given to the Order of the Knights of the Cross, and the Archbishop received one third of gathered amber. Local inhabitants who gathered and traded in amber for centuries lost this right. By the Order’s regalia all obtained amber had to be given to designated officers and there were huge fines for trying to hide even smallest quantities of amber. As early as the beginning of the 19th century an executioner in Konigsberg was employed whose duty was to execute death penalties for wilful collecting of amber.


Archeological finds

As early as in the Stone Age people used everything what could find – animal teeth, shells, flat stones, stones – in the manufacture of ornaments and amulets. Pieces of amber washed ashore were perfectly suited for this purpose.

Amber adornments were used in Lithuania already in the 4th century BC. Amber pendants, beads, brooches and statuettes of people and animals were found at excavation sites of Stone Age settlements. Scientists think that statuettes represented protectors – world rulers – of those times and served as amulets.

The first biggest amber treasure was found while dredging amber in the Curonian Bay in the vicinity of Juodkrante in 1860-1881. Scientists from around the world became interested in unique New Stone Age decorative amber objects dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C. This is the famous R.Klebs collection called “Juodkrante Treasure”. It consists of raw amber and 434 complete handicraft articles. The collection contains many pendants of different forms: long and narrow, regular with an oblique base, almost rectangular and oval. Different brooches have been found – small round and oval, up to 4,5 cm long, big boat-shaped, some of them have plain surface, others are decorated with dots. Different tube-shaped beads with straight to slightly curved sides that have surface ranging from lightly retouched to highly polished and many links and disks have also been found. New Stone age plastic art objects – amber statuettes of men and animals – are an exceptionally valuable part of this collection. All these objects have been described in by R.Klebs who later included them in book “Stone Age Amber Adornments” published in 1882. During WW II the collection disappeared.

B. Kunkuliene, a most highly experienced restorer of Pranas Gudynas Centre for Restoration of Works of Art restored the collection comparing remaining drawings with analogue Stone Age amber ornaments found on the Baltic Coast and now it is on view in amber museums in Palanga, Vilnius and Nida (LITHUANIA).

R. Rimantiene, Doctor of History, has been excavating swamps in seaside town Sventoji for 20 years and found many unique archaeological amber ornaments. Not only big number of amber articles but also plenty of raw material and semi manufactured articles have been found in Sventoji. The scientist suggests that one of the biggest east Baltic amber excavation and processing centers was situated here.


Amber in medicine

Famous Hippocrates (460-377 BC), father of medicine, in his works described medicinal properties and methods of application of amber that were later used by scientists until the Middle Ages.

In ancient Rome was used as medicine and as a protection against different diseases. Calistratus famous physician of those times, wrote that amber protects from madness, powder of amber mixed with honey cures throat, ear and eye diseases and taken with water cures stomach illnesses.

Pliny the Younger noted that Roman peasant women wore amber medallions not only as adornments, but also as a remedy for “swollen glands and sore throat and palate”.

Arab scientist Ibn Sina (Avicenna) called amber remedy for many diseases. There was a belief in eastern countries that amber smoke strengthens human spirit and gives courage. In China “amber syrup”, a mixture of succinct acid and opium, was used as a tranquilizer and antispasmodic.

In the Middle Ages amber beads were even worn for the treatment of jaundice. It was believed that the magic force of this yellow stone could absorb unhealthy yellowness of the skin and the weakness of the organism. Terms Oleum succini (amber oil), Balsamum succini (amber balsam), Extractum succini (amber extract) were often used in the recipes and records of the alchemists of those times. Prussian duke Albrecht decided to follow the recipe of a Roman physician and sent a piece of amber to Luther as a remedy for stone disease. As could be seen from legends and myths Prussians and Samogitians also used amber in the manufacture of incenses. In former times Lithuanian tribes employed such incense to drive away evil spirits from the dead and help the soul travel to good spirits. The newly born babies were fumigated so that they could grow faster, the newly-weds – that they could live happily and those going to war so that they could return with spoils of victory.

Before World War I amber was still used for treatment of various diseases, e.g. tincture made of pieces of amber and vodka was thought to increase sexual potency of men. In Lithuania and in tsarists Russia nannies had to wear amber beads to protect themselves and babies from diseases. As late as before World War II, especially in Germany, amber beads were put on babies to make the eruption of teeth less painful and make the teeth grow stronger.

Even now in Lithuania many women suffering from goiter purchase curative amber beads made of unpolished pieces of amber to wear around the neck. At least nobody would be able contradict the fact that amber beads collect an electrostatic charge when touched and the oxidized surface contains the highest amount of succinic acid. It is a bio stimulant that has a positive effect on the nervous system, the heart, and the kidneys and stimulates recovery processes.


Relatives throughout in the World

Since the oldest times word “amber” had only one meaning – the Baltic amber. However the processes that influenced the formation of amber have left their traces in different parts of the globe because they had an effect on not only resins of coniferous trees, but also on resins of leaf-bearing trees and even leguminous plants. Although 150 types of fossil resins are known in the world, these resins are not amber but its relatives. They are mostly found in Europe and America and each of them has its own name.

In the Sambia deposit several types of fossil resins (pieces of varying sizes, the smallest only several millimeters in size, the biggest the size of an egg, and of varying colors, from blue, greenish, all shades of brown to tar-like black) with similar qualities are found along Baltic amber.

Big deposits of fossil resins especially rich in inclusions have been discovered in the Arctic, North America (Alaska), Yugor and Taymyr Peninsulas and in the Carpathian region, especially in Romania. They are opaque, reddish-yellow, dark red, blue, dark green, fluorescent, and stink of sulfur and petroleum when burnt.

In Sicily and in northern Italy deposits of dark red and yellow fossil resins of trees of the family Cupressaceae called Sicilian amber is found. Since the oldest times it has been used in the manufacture of adornments and Phoenicians new about its deposits.

In Europe 50 types of fossil resins of different age are found.

The oldest known Asian fossil resins (sometimes pieces have the size of a head) are found in Birma. They are mostly opaque, dark brown, sometimes – red and yellow and in the 18th century single beads of these resins were used by Tibetan Buddhists for the decoration of their rosaries.

Fossilized insects are especially common in fossil resins found in Mexico, Dominican Island, and Haiti. So-called Mexican amber is a result of resins of leaf-bearing trees and is widely used in jewellery.

In Africa in the soil of no longer existing forests sub fossil resins of leaf-bearing trees are found and locals use them for making of adornments and amulets.

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