Before there was Lucite, Plexiglas, Bakelite or Celluloid, there was amber. In many ways it is the original thermoplastic - nature's precursor to the age of modern luxury materials. Every synthetic plastic that mankind has developed since has been a poor attempt to rival the natural, honey-colored perfection of amber.
And oh, what a plastic amber is. The golden-yellow gemstone is warm to the touch and extraordinarily light. With a specific gravity of only 1.05 to 1.09, it is hardly denser than water. In contrast, most other gemstones - although glittering and beautiful - can seem cold and aloof. But this is not so with amber. Instead, it has an inner glow that reflects the best emotional qualities of humanity - welcoming, cheerful and warmhearted. Perhaps that is why it has so fascinated people across the ages.
Amber typically ranges in color from a light lemon-yellow to a vibrant honey-gold to a deep, reddish black. The most prized colors for gem quality pieces are a bright, golden yellow or an intense, cherry red. But a very rare blue variety of the gem found in the Dominican Republic is also quite desirable. Amber can be opaque, translucent or perfectly transparent, depending on the distribution and number of tiny air bubbles in the stone.
While often referred to as fossilized, amber is technically the partially oxidized, polymerized resin of certain species of ancient, extinct trees. This treasured, organic gem can range from 2.5 million years old to an almost unimaginable 320 million years old. However, most gem quality material is usually 25 to 40 million years old. Due to its sticky origins as ancient tree resin, it also isn't uncommon to find small insects, plants and even tiny animals, like lizards, frogs or snails, perfectly preserved in amber nodules.
This amazing phenomenon gives scientists and collectors alike an unprecedented window back in time tens of millions of year. These unbelievably detailed fossils trapped in transparent gold burst into popular culture during the 1990s with the debut of the movie Jurassic Park. The movie, adapted from the book of the same name by bestselling author Michael Crichton, depicts the cloning of dinosaurs from DNA derived from mosquito fossils trapped in amber.
The warm, golden hue of this organic gemstone has been coveted by man for thousands of years. In fact, amber has been excavated from northern European archeological sites that are over 10,000 years old. Its most important historical source in ancient and medieval times was the south Baltic coast, on the shores of present day Poland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Because of this, amber has traditionally been known as the "Gold of the North".
Rough Baltic Amber
Demand for the glowing gem was so high in the ancient Roman Empire that an extensive trade network developed to move large quantities of the Gold of the North from the Baltic region to the Mediterranean Basin. Due to its distant source, many myths surrounding the precious golden gem and its origins sprang up in the ancient world. For example, some ancient Greeks romantically believed that amber was the liquid rays of the setting sun, condensed into a perfect, golden gem.
Amber was also considered a gem with powerful magical properties in ancient times. This was at least partially attributable to its propensity to easily acquire a static charge, causing it to attract small fibers of cloth or shreds of paper. In fact, our modern word for electricity is derived from the ancient Greek term for amber - "elektron".
The Gold of the North continued to be highly prized by the wealthy and powerful throughout the medieval period. By the 13th century, the crusading Teutonic Order, having captured much of the Baltic region from its pagan inhabitants, promptly enforced a total monopoly on its trade. The late medieval demand for rosary beads coupled with the Teutonic Order's monopoly on amber production helped make the Baltic region fabulously wealthy during this time.
European craftsmen in the countries surrounding the Baltic coast became experts at working the treasured material. The greatest of their creations was undoubtedly the Amber Room. As the name implies, this was an entire chamber of sumptuously carved amber panels backed with mirrors and gold leaf to increase their reflectivity. This magnum opus was created from over 13,000 pounds (6 metric tons) of the finest Baltic amber by the master craftsman of the Danish court, Gottfried Wolfram, and two additional master carvers from the city of Danzig, in the Kingdom of Poland.
Although originally commissioned in 1701 by Frederick I of Prussia for his wife, Sophie Charlotte, the Amber Room was given to Russia's Peter the Great in 1716 as a gift to seal an alliance. For centuries this masterpiece was widely considered the Eighth Wonder of the World until it was looted from the Soviet Union by the Nazis during World War II. Tragically, the Amber Room was either destroyed or lost in the German city of Konigsberg (the modern Russian city of Kaliningrad) at the end of the war in early 1945.
Amber is truly an amazing substance. At once lustrous and mellow, it radiates an inviting warmth absent from other, inorganic gemstones. Is it any wonder that man has cherished the soft glow of the Gold of the North since he first discovered it upon the shores of the Baltic Sea so many millennia ago?