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LITHUANIAN AMBER

GOLD  OF  THE  BALTIC  SEA

 

Amber... What is it? What is its origin? What is it used for? You will find the answers to these and many more questions on this page.

Ancient Phoenicians used the word yainitar to name amber, and this has a clear association with many words for Baltic amber used today. Amber is called:

  • gintaras in Lithuanian,
  • dzintars in Latvian,
  • yantar in Russian,
  • gyantar in Hungarian,
  • jantar and bursztyn in Polish,
  • Bernstein in German,
  • ambre in French,

and its English and French names are derived from the old Arabic word "anbar".

Amber is fossilized resin or sap of pine trees which grew in forests around 55-45 million years ago. Amber comes in such an assortment of forms that scientists could not conclude if all this variety could be explained by different conditions of forming a fossil, or if each form is from a different species of pine. While amber has appeared naturally in various parts of the world, it is well recognized that Baltic Amber is the oldest and most valued of all. Most often, amber is known in its warm, translucent deep yellow form. But it is found in a full range of colors, from dark brown up to light golden yellow. Rarely, amber appears in an opaque form with colors ranging from white through ivory (often called ‘bone amber’). Occasionally, inserts will appear in select pieces such as pre-historic plants or even insect life, which was accidentally trapped and preserved through the ages. It gives the scientists in insight into the flora and fauna 50 million year ago. Demand is especially strong for amber with insects inside. "Amber is like a time capsule made and placed in the earth by nature herself," said David Federman, author of Consumer Guide to Colored Gemstones. "It has helped paleontologists reconstruct life on earth in its primal phases. More than 1,000 extinct species of insects have been identified in amber."

Could a mosquito trapped in amber hold dinosaur DNA? Most amber just isn't old enough, celebrating maybe 25 to 50 million birthdays at most. The dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period. The Jurassic period was 144 million years ago. But in 1994, Dr Raul Cano of California Polytechnic state University at San Luis Obispo, a molecular biologist, reported in the British journal Nature that he and his colleagues had extracted DNA from a weevil that was trapped in amber 120 to 135 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The amber, which was from the Lower Cretaceous period, was mined in the mountains of Lebanon south of Beirut by Aftim Acra, who has a collection of amber pieces containing 700 insects, including termites, moths, caterpillars, spiders, pseudoscorpions, and midges, which do suck blood.

One of the first substances used for decoration, it was an object of trade and barter for Baltic peoples. The oldest piece of amber altered by man was found in the area of Hannover, Germany. It was dated at approximately 30,000 years old! It probably served as an amulet (good luck charm). Thousands of archeological findings in Central Europe have proven that amber was used by prehistoric humans for personal embellishment and glorification of religious rituals. One archeological excavation found a center of amber craft which existed around 3000 B.C. in today's Lithuania. The biggest discovery was made just recently, in the 1980's, several miles east of Gdansk, Poland. There, various settlements engaged in amber craft between 2100 B.C. and 1700 B.C. Only one settlement (Niedzwiedziowka) was thoroughly examined. More than 30,000 pieces of crafted amber were identified. It is believed that about 900 independent amber craft shops existed in a one-half square mile. The two main sources of amber on the market today are the Baltic states and the Dominican Republic. Amber from the Baltic states is older, and therefore preferred on the market, but amber from the Dominican Republic is more likely to have insect inclusions. The largest amber mine in the Baltic region is in Russia, west of Kaliningrad. Baltic amber is found in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Russia, and occasionally washed up on the shores of the Baltic Sea as far away as Denmark, Norway, and England. Other amber sources include Myanmar (formerly Burma), Lebanon, Sicily, Mexico, Romania, Germany, and Canada.

In ancient Greece amber became widely valued around 1600 B.C. Greeks were fascinated by it. In their mythology, amber was made from the tears of a nymph as they dropped into water. In The Odyssey, Homer describes an amber necklace belonging to a distinguished Phoenician merchant, and he also mentions amber jewellery - earrings and a necklace of amber beads - as a princely gift. Another ancient writer, Nicias, said that amber was the juice or essence of the setting sun congealed in the sea and cast up on the shore. The ancient Greek word for amber is “elektron“, meaning - originating from the Sun. The Greeks called amber elektron, or sun-made, perhaps because of this story, or perhaps because it becomes electrically charged when rubbed with a cloth and can attract small particles. The Greeks were also the first to describe the electrostatic properties of amber. No wonder that many hundreds of years later this word was used to name electricity.

From Greece, amber went to other Mediterranean nations. Articles made with Baltic amber were found in the tomb of King Tutankhamon, 1400 B.C., and in Mesopotamia, 900 B.C.

Ancient Romans loved amber as well. Jewellery, decorative articles, dice, and amulets were made with amber, but only for the rich. Pliny the Elder complained that a small amber statuette of a man was more expensive than a man alive and healthy (he meant a slave). Emperor Nero was a great connoisseur of amber. To bring more amber, trade expeditions were made to the Baltic sea. The Romans sent armies to conquer and control amber producing areas. The extent of the amber trade can be illustrated by the fact that more than 70,000 ancient Roman coins have been found in what is now Poland. And how many still lie buried in the ground?

The ancient Germans burned amber as incense, so they called it Bernstein, or "burn stone." Clear colorless amber was considered the best material for rosary beads in the Middle Ages due to its smooth silky feel. Certain orders of knights controlled the trade and unauthorized possession of raw amber was illegal in most of Europe by the year 1400.

Many myths and legends surround the origin of amber. Ovid writes that when Phaeton, a son of Phoebus, the sun, convinced his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky for a day, he drove too close to the earth, setting it on fire. To save the earth, Jupiter struck Phaeton out of the sky with his thunderbolts and he died, plunging out of the sky. His mother and sister turned into trees in their grief but still cried mourning him. Their tears, dried by the sun, are amber.

"Stone Age man imbued amber with supernatural properties and used it to wear and to worship," Mr Federman said. "Amber took on great value and significance to, among others, the Assyrians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Phoenicians, and Greeks. It never completely went out of vogue since the Stone Age. Between 1895 and 1900, one million kilograms of Baltic amber were produced for jewellery."

Throughout history, people have believed that amber has actual healing characteristics. Also today some anti-rheumatic ointments are supplemented with amber. A piece of raw amber looks like a stone, but when held gives a deep feeling of warmth. When heated, amber will emit a gentle resin scent, and it cleans the environment in which it rests. These sensations make people feel better and believe in the healing power of amber. For centuries amber was used to massage sore muscles, and in powdered form, it was mixed with honey, oil and alcohol into ointments good for almost every illness. Every European pharmacy store in the 19th century offered mystical amber mixtures. Now, of course, they are replaced by sophisticated pharmaceutical products, but many people still believe that an amber bracelet will ease rheumatic pain, and amber coral beads supposedly help in cases of thyroid illnesses. There are other healing effects described in articles dealing with natural medicine: amber helps to cure a sore throat, especially during teething in babies, and if it is kept in water or wine for 1-14 days, the liquid can be used for stomach ache, asthma and as a styptic medication. No one knows how much it truly heals, but it certainly does no harm. Anyhow, it is believed that wearing amber contributes to a purification of the human mind, body, and spirit. It is also believed to activate unconditional love in mankind, stimulate the intellect, and open the crown chakra. Amber is widely used today in traditional Oriental, Arabic and Persian medicine. Astrologically, amber is a stone of the Zodiac sign of the Twins.

Amber occurs as irregular masses, nodules, or drops that are transparent to translucent and have a yellow color, sometimes tinted red, orange, or brown. It may be clouded by innumerable minuscule air bubbles or contain fossilized insects or plants. Its hardness is 2-3, luster resinous, and its specific gravity is 1.05-1.09 g/cm³. Softening occurs at about 150° C, and melting takes place at 250 – 350° C. Amber is particularly abundant along the shores of the Baltic Sea where it is mined extensively from tertiary glauconite sands that are from 40 million to 60 million years old. The components of amber in approximate values are: carbon (80%), hydrogen (10%), oxygen (10%), and small quantities of sulphur.

Nowadays amber is popular in jewellery and as a decorative material. Depending on its composition amber comes in all varieties of colours: from golden, yellow, cognac or cherry, transparent and opaque, to ivory, brown, green (containing moss), black (containing bark of trees or floor coverings of the forest), semi-transparent and opaque; the rare varieties are blue and cherry. The reason of opaque colour are up to 900 000 small bubbles per square millimeter. When amber was heated by the sun, the surface of the stone became weaker and oxygen was evapourating; this process is called natural clearing. Today this job is performed for the manufacturers by special autoclave machines within one or two days. The sparkling effects are caused by applying different temperatures to certain parts of the stone.

Jewellers use not only natural cut or heated sparkling amber, but also pressed amber, the latter looking more like glass imitation. Using this technique small pieces of amber (called amber sand, or amber dust) are heated up to 320° C and pressed in the shape of plates, cylinders or whatever other form. Natural cut or heated amber is much more beautiful and expensive than pressed one which never sparkles. Beware of possible plastic imitations! Here are some tips how you can test your amber for genuineness: when burned, amber has a pleasant specific tar smell, and plastic smells badly; natural amber remains on the surface of a strong saline solution, while plastic will remain on the bottom. If your natural amber jewel is not shining, you can polish it gently with mild toothepaste.

Most amber jewellery is hand made, and the process of its creation consists in manual grinding of the weather beaten crust, oxidation, shaping, polishing and drilling. At some stages of amber processing machines are employed as well.

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