Amber, the treasure of the Baltic Sea


The beauty of unpolished amber

Jewelry fads, like fashion, come and go. Coloured diamonds were most recently beckoned by bejeweled fingers, emeralds have always been a cause for some envy, and then there’s the sparkle of red rubies and the bluest sapphires. Although amber doesn’t fit into the precious gem stone league, it has become fashionable again.

It was on a recent trip to Poland I learned that the natural beauty comes in more than just various hues of yellow, but multicolored compositions. Also, I discovered that amber has long been a highly desirable commodity in both art and culture e.g. an amber goblet known as the ‘hobbler’ since it doesn’t have a stem, is housed in Krawkow’s Wawel Cathedral.

This fossil resin’s transforming into amber is a very difficult process to understand. Words like isomeric, polymerization and oxidizations all play a part in this complicated, thousands of year old process where bacteria are also involved. Even researchers and professionals find it difficult to define the formation. Baltic amber, also known as succinite, in which numerous plants exist, is known for its high amber-acid content.

Records show that as far back as 12,000BC pendants were found. Then during the Neolithic period (5,000-1,800BC), amber was used for decorative purposes. It was at the end of the Bronze Age (1,800-700BC) and the beginning of the Iron Age (700-400BC) that amber artifacts appeared in great abundance and even then was made into amber beads and rings. However, amber fell out of favour and didn’t return until the Middle Ages (AD700-1,300) when it became a favourite raw material for jewelry and ornaments.

Polished strands of amber and coloured stones

Fast forward to the 19th and early 20th centuries when there was another decline and amber workshops closed. Amber’s popularity dwindled.

The polishing and working of this resin is one of the oldest crafts practiced in the coastal regions of Poland. And in the ship- building city of Gdansk, artisans once were among the most highly acclaimed in the world. In fact, Janina Grabowska, a leading authority of historic technique, says that it was “due to the interest of the nobility and ruling classes” that amber made its first big impact.

However, even with the passing of centuries, this stone didn’t completely lose all its glitter. And these days beautiful, perfectly crafted designs are being snapped up and credit is due mainly to savvy German and French tourists. Amber jewelry for fashion- forward designers and consumers has become a noticeable accessory.

Throughout Poland, jewelry stores featuring famous Baltic amber is omnipresent – some pure ‘schlock’, others exquisite.

Once shunned by the locals, its new creative concepts now have variation from polished to rough unfinished looking stones, often irregular shaped and in a bewildering range of colours- blue, green, black, ivory white.

It was most interesting to see that many top Polish jeweller designers use amber stones without altering its natural form

Trend setter, Marcin Zaremski owns Metal jewelry Boutique in Warsaw’s famous and beautiful Old Square. His boutique is the antithesis of the original few buildings left standing after WWII and the perfect replicas that were erected. Even through the façade is of the period, glass vitrines and the name-sake modern brass coloured metal is part of the ultra cool décor of this small shop. Almost single-handedly, Zaremski changed the ‘look’ of amber. .

Zaremski has given new dimension and components with his integration of brushed silver. “Silver,” he says, “was the cheapest of all metals after the war. Therefore, it’s rare to see any amber set in gold.” Besides, he thinks silver is more complimentary.

A selection of amber colours

The Nowinska family, mother, father, daughter, all contribute to their very up- market clientele, each with a different ‘take’ on their all hand- made jewelry. It’s here that young beautiful blue- eyed twenty- something, Katarzyna (Kate) Nowinski’s designs are easy to identify and also to see the variation of colours she uses. In many of her pieces in the smart shop in the fashionable 5 star hotels, Bristol and Le Regina, her choice is the purest, transparent yellow. See-through amber is rare, so for added definition, she uses faceted stones as pendants. But the day I met her, she was wearing an entire and stunning translucent, large stoned strand around her neck. Her father’s designs are more sculptural, often heart shaped with a dash of shining stylized silver working with traditional amber with inclusions.

Upstairs of a café where Frederic Chopin, the Polish born composer/hero would come for his coffee, is Gallery Marki.. Bozena Marki, the owner of the two storey gallery, has several yearly exhibits of contemporary jewelry. While there, I was at the opening exhibit of her amber statement. Designers Danuta Czapnik showed two large oval shaped clear yellow with splashed with milky white through the centre was set on a thick curved silver cable neck piece, the large stones at each end. There was also a matching bracelet. Sylwia Gobszewicz’s irregular large amber beads were combined with oxidized silver cubes and contrasted with turquoise. Using black amber, Zbigniew Kabski also combined various tones of rough, unpolished yellow amber attached to black leather strands.

Prices are constantly rising for these artistic amber designs. However, fakes are so good, that they often fool the pros.

One of the only ways to know if it’s the real thing is…‘if it floats, it’s the genuine, thing’. If it sinks don’t dive for it.