By Danielle Olivia Tefft, Jewelry Writer
I think amber jewelry is both attractive and amazing. Baltic amber, especially, is an ancient gift from nature, with many homeopathic powers attributed to it. I especially like the translucent pieces of amber that are often made into pendants. These often contain ancient plants, insects and animals incased inside them. That’s because amber itself is fossilized resin from the trunks of ancient trees. The life forms became trapped in the resin when it flowed millions of years ago.
Amber has long been considered an organic gemstone like the pearl. It's recognized as such by the prestigious Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and gemologists worldwide. Many people think amber looks like chunks of hardened honey. It can be opaque or translucent. Opaque pieces of amber are often heat treated to make them translucent.
The Baltic Sea area has been the largest known source of this natural gem since antiquity. Baltic amber was created by resin from an enormous ancient forest of pine trees. Some 40 to 60 million years ago, this pine forest spanned from Norway to the Caspian Sea. If you burn this amber, it will release a wonderful pine scent.
There are deposits of "young" tree resins elsewhere in the world that are on their way to becoming fossilized amber. These deposits can be anywhere from one thousand to one million years old. They are nowhere near the age of Baltic amber. This young resin is called Copal. Sometimes, these more modern resins are passed off as true Baltic amber. Plastic, glass and man-made resins can also be passed off as real amber.
Resin is not to be confused with the sap which flows inside the internal veins of a tree, much like human blood. Resin forms at the surface of a tree when the bark is damaged. Think of it as nature's bandage. It's quite fitting that Baltic amber is still considered to be a healing aid millions of years after it first flowed to protect the pine trees. (More about that a bit later on…)
Fierce storms have been kicking up Baltic amber from the sea floor for centuries. In ancient times, it would wash up on the beaches of Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and other countries bordering the Baltic Sea. There are times when it still does after such storms. From the beginning, the local peoples were in awe of these golden pebbles from the sea which were so lightweight when held in the hand. They attributed great magic and healing powers to amber. Initially, local peoples harvested amber freely from the sea. It was considered a gift from nature's bounty for all to enjoy.
Over time, reports of the healing properties of amber spread by word of mouth throughout the known world. So amber became an important commodity along early trade routes to the Mediterranean Sea region, especially in Egypt and in Italy; the seat of the Roman Empire. Amber was also traded along routes through Middle East and Asian countries where it was also deemed to have special powers.
It was the Romans who made the first attempt to usurp the amber trade away from indigenous Baltic peoples. Sadly, they valued amber more than the lives of the blond, blue-eyed peoples who harvested it from the Baltic shores. They captured these people and made them slaves. A few were left to harvest amber as they had done in the early days when free of Roman domination and bondage. But many more were taken back to Rome to live their lives in slavery.
Amber was known as the "Gold of the North" among the Romans. They established a well- known trade route known as the Amber Road along land and rivers from the Baltic Sea to the seat of the Roman Empire in Italy. The first century A. D. was the Roman heyday for amber. They used it to make everything from coins and protective amulets to medicine.
The spread of Christianity provided yet another use for amber. It became a popular and sought-after material for crosses and prayer beads. After the Romans, the next group to stake a claim for Baltic amber was the Teutonic Knights during the Crusades. The Teutonic Knights took control of amber production and the amber routes. They also took control of Gdansk, a city in Poland, which had come to be known as the City of Amber after the fall of the Roman Empire.
The Teutonic Knights' grip was severe. Those caught harvesting amber without official consent were hanged. The Teutonic knights controlled amber production and sale in Gdansk for over one hundred years. Finally, early in the 15th century, the local peoples staged an uprising and drove them out of the city. Local peoples took back control of the amber production. Gdansk once again emerged as the center for the amber trade.
Today, Baltic amber is still in high demand. It's processed for the world market in Poland, Lithuania, Russia and Latvia for jewelry and homeopathic remedies. As body heat warms it, Baltic amber releases oil. The oil contains succinic acid which is absorbed through the skin. Curiously, succinic acid is found only in Baltic Sea amber, although amber deposits have been located in other parts of the world. These other locations include Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Sicily, Myanmar and Romania.
Succinic acid has been found to be a natural pain reliever. Some call it nature's Ibuprofen. Baltic amber has the highest concentration of succinic acid found in the nature (roughly 3% to 8%). Rhubarb stalks, beets, cheese and other foods also contain succinic acid in much lower concentrations.
Parents in many European countries still place Baltic amber necklaces and bracelets on their teething toddlers and infants as a natural analgesic to help lessen the pain. These items are called teething jewelry. However, that is a very misleading term since this jewelry is meant to be worn, not chewed upon! You can purchase teething jewelry in drugstores in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
Baltic amber is also marketed to adults to help reduce inflammation caused by diseases and boost energy. Again, it is the release of succinic acid into the body that purportedly creates these effects. No other amber in the world is known to contain this amazing healing acid.
Two Quick Tests to Determine if Your Amber is Real:
Gem & Jewelry Pocket Guide, by Renee Newman, GG. (2007). International Jewelry Publications, Los Angeles, CA.
Hazelaid.com: All About Baltic Amber Teething Jewelry, http://hazelaid.com/pages/about-baltic-amber
Healing Amber: About Baltic Amber, http://www.healingamber.ca/About-Baltic-Amber_ep_41.html
I hope you enjoyed this article on the amazing history and uses of Baltic amber, especially the jewelry! Be sure to subscribe to this blog to learn about more great antique and vintage jewelry.
Danielle Olivia Tefft is a professional writer with a lifelong passion for gems and jewelry. She is a GIA accredited jewelry professional and is the owner of online antique and vintage jewelry shop, Treasure Box Antiques; for many years at Ruby Lane and now at Etsy. When she is not writing, she spends time in the garden, spoiling her cats and traveling with her significant other. Would you like to hire her? Would you like to advertise on her website or this blog? Visit danielleoliviatefftwrites.com for clips, terms, her media kit and more information.
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