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Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2000
The yellow (or white or blue) treasure of Kaliningrad
By RICHARD HUMPHRIES
Special to The Japan Times
Monopoly is not a word you would naturally associate with Kaliningrad. Yet the tiny Russian enclave possesses a remarkable -- and entirely natural -- one: amber. Ninety percent of the world's commercial amber comes from just one site, the open-pit amber quarry at Yantarny on Kaliningrad's Baltic coast.
Amber is the fossilized resin from ancient coniferous forests. In northern Europe, 50 million years ago, those forests were immense. They covered large parts of Scandinavia, the Baltic and North Sea regions and beyond. As the resin leaked down the sides of trees, it trapped leaves, seeds, insects and even -- shades of Jurassic Park -- the occasional small lizard. The forests were eventually buried and the resin hardened. The same process occurred in different geological periods in places as diverse as Japan, Myanmar and the United States.
The color of the substance varied greatly, depending on the tree source, the epoch, the temperature and other factors. Oranges, yellows, blues and whites were just some of the shades. Specimens could be anything from fully transparent to completely opaque.
Amber was one of the first objects (it cannot properly be called a stone) to be worn by human beings for decorative purposes. Archaeologists in England have found evidence of worked specimens dating back to the late Paleolithic Period, roughly 10,000 years ago.
Aside from its evident beauty, there was also a widespread ancient belief in amber's talismanic properties. It was thought capable of preventing disease. One reason for that was its electrostatic properties. The ancient Greeks called amber "elektron," and from that term the word electricity and its cognates were derived.
Beginning in the Bronze Age, well before the rise of an international trade in spices or silk, there was a busy trade in amber. Baltic amber has been found in numerous ancient excavation sites, such as those at Mycenae, Troy and in Egypt. The poet Homer refers to the substance repeatedly in the "Odyssey," as in this excerpt from Book XVIII: "And the henchman straightaway bore Eurymachus a golden chain of curious work, strung with amber beads shining like the sun."
By Roman times, trade routes were well-established, and Baltic amber was particularly prized by Roman society. In his "Natural History," Pliny the Elder writes of a Roman knight dispatched northward by the Emperor Nero to locate the source of the valued substance and to return with enough of it to please that mercurial ruler.
Dark Ages turmoil disrupted the trade, but by the 13th century the Teutonic Order had taken control of the Baltic region and revived the fortunes of amber. The order established a monopoly -- and a rather severe one. Unauthorized scavenging and digging for amber was punished with death. Smuggling did occur and even continues today with Yantarny's product.
Many mysteries have been associated with amber, but none has been greater than the fate of the legendary Amber Room. This magnificent chamber was constructed of engraved amber panels and presented as a gift from the Prussian king to Czar Peter I. It became part of Catherine the Great's summer residence near St. Petersburg. When the German Army captured that house in 1941, the room was dismantled and its pieces moved to Konigsberg. Sometime in 1945, the panels were moved again before the city fell. They haven't been seen since.
Today, there are many museums and workshops in the Baltic region where visitors can see remarkable specimens on display and learn something of amber's history and mystique. Possibly the best is the Amber Museum in Kaliningrad, housed in an old city gate that somehow survived the war. Displays from the museum's huge collection include Catherine the Great's amber jewelry boxes and re-creations of the Amber Room's lost panels, as well as a diorama of the Yantarny quarry.
The museum possesses excellent samples of rarer blue and white amber, highly valued by modern craftsmen, as well as specimens with trapped animals, called inclusions. These latter pieces are prized not only as as adornments but as literally windows onto the past, and generate huge scientific interest. When sold on the open market, amber with inclusions commands a high premium.
Amber in a variety of worked styles -- carved; set in bracelets, rings and necklaces; or simply as individual polished pieces -- is available at the museum's shops and at stalls and stores throughout Baltic Europe.
For many people, wearing amber today is more than just a fashion statement. It is the continuation of an immemorial tradition.