The Gold of the North: Polish Baltic Amber
Recently, a giant piece of amber, currently housed at the Amber Muzeum in Gdańsk, Poland, broke the record for the world’s largest, weighing in at a whopping 68 kg (149 lbs). The piece is Sumatran amber, a cousin of Poland’s Baltic variety.
What is Amber and Where to Find It
Amber is a naturally-occurring resin derived from trees. It’s therefore naturally light in weight and usually translucent, although it can be opaque. Amber comes in a variety of colors, ranging from a milky white, to a deep green, to an almost-black dark brown, and even dark blue; yellow, orange, and dark red amber are the most often occurring. Poland’s Baltic coast is ideal for finding amber because it meets the right conditions for its creation and, more importantly, for its expulsion from the sea.
Around 40 million years ago, what we now know as the Baltic Seas was a forrest, full of trees producing resin which would fossilize and harden over millions of years to form amber. The climate of the region meant that resin-producing trees, such as pine and sequoia, were plentiful. When these trees sustained wounds (for example, a broken tree branch) they excreted a sticky, sappy resin to protect the wounded area. This resin would dry and harden, sometimes trapping small insects or plants as it did so.
Today, amber is washed up on the shore of northern Poland after storms. But it’s not enough for there to be stormy weather – the winds have to also be blowing from the northeast, in order for the gemstones to be picked up off the sea floor. Then, a southwardly wind needs to blow in order for the amber to reach the shores of Poland’s beaches. Amber is most easily searched for in the evenings, when it’s dark enough outside that a UV lamp can be used to quickly spot the gemstones, which glow bright yellow, among the pieces of wood and debris that is washed ashore after a storm.
The "Goldrush" of Amber
Each year, about 5.5 tons of amber wash up on the Poland’s Baltic coast. Therefore, the gemstone is far from rare – although with over 60 varieties, some shades of the stone are more valuable, such as white amber or blue amber.
Amber, when it is first found on the coastline, is quite matte and opaque. Only after polishing it for some time is its true shine and beauty revealed. Because so much of it can be found on the Baltic coast, not just in Poland, most amber is not very expensive. It’s frequently made into and sold as jewelry. Since it’s most often joined with silver or gold, amber’s price is dictated by the price of these metals, coupled with the rarity of the amber itself if it happens to be a more unique color.
The most popular place to buy amber jewelry is in Gdańsk on Mariacka Street as there is so much of it, but amber is also normally found at most Polish jewelers as well as at outdoor markets in many Polish cities. It’s common for Polish women to own at least one piece of amber jewelry, although it may not be to even their own taste.
Amber as Jewelry and Medicine
Amber has been made into jewelry for thousands of years. Pre-historic pieces of amber jewelry can be found in Gdansk’s Amber Museum or the Amber collection at the Malbork Castle. Amber was believe to have healing properties; people would wear necklaces made of amber beads to protect themselves from sore throats, headaches, and to strengthen their thyroids. In some cases, amber was crushed into a fine powdered and smoked, as a way to clear sinuses and a stuffed up nose.
The Amber Road
The people of the Baltic region were not the only ones to recognize the beauty and uniqueness of amber; the ancient Romans were also aware of the gemstone and prized it for properties. Known as the “gold of the north”, amber was traded via the Amber Road in Roman times, which connected North and South Europe through a network of roads traveling from the North and Baltic Seas all the way to the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The first known trade route associated with amber trade was created by the Celts in the year 5 BCE.
With the amount of amber found on the Baltic coast each year, it’s unsurprising that early Roman and Slavs had an explanation for this unusual abundance of the gemstone.
The Romans believe that amber pieces were actually the tears of Clymene and her daughters. After the death of Phaethon, Clymene’s son, they were turned into poplar trees and forever weep for him. Phaethon was the son of the sun god Helios; arrogantly, he believed he could control Helios’ chariot, resulting in a disastrous ride which only ended when Helio struck him with his lightning bolt, killing him instantly. Amber was known as the sun stone, both for its color and the association with Phaethon and his tragic fate.
According to Lithuanian mythology, Jurata, the goddess of the sea (sometimes portrayed as a mermaid), lived under the Baltic in a castle made of amber. One day, upon hearing that a fisherman, Kastytis, had fished too many fish out of the sea, she emerged from her castle, intent on punishing him. Instead, she fell in love with him. Their relationship was forbidden as Kastytis was a mortal, and when the thunder god Perun found out about their union, he struck the amber castle with his bolt in his fury and the castle fell to millions of pieces. In another version of the legend, Perun kills Kastytis and Jurata is so distraught that she cries tears of amber for eternity, mourning the loss of her true love. Either way, both versions offer an explanation for why the Baltic seems to be an endless source of amber in the region.