Amber: A Brief History
Amber has been around since Paleolithic and Neolithic times and its uses reflect many different cultures. In ancient times it was used as protection, in medical potions, and worn as jewelry. As far back as 12,000 BC amber trade was a way for different regions to communicate with each other.
Found in only a few areas, amber, which is a plant resin, was a highly valued stone. It was actually the first commercially traded commodity, considered a treasured gemstone. Its early routes included the Baltic Sea, through the Elbe River and then down the Danube.
Archeologists have found evidence that there were jewelers’ workshops that worked in amber as early as Neolithic times and amber has been unearthed from houses’ foundations indicating that it may have been placed there to ensure a family’s good fortune.
The ancient amber trade routes came down by boat from the north through the Elbe, then down the Oder from the western part of Pomerania into Bohemia, on the Vistula, then to the Black Sea Coast from the Samland Peninsula. Then it led over land into the very center of the Roman Empire - Italy.
Overland routes existed from the 1st-4th centuries BC, re-run by the Celts, and artifacts made of amber have been found by archeologists in Greece, Egypt in the tomb of Tutankhamen, and even in the city of Brighton in England where an amber cup is on display.
Rome became the center of the amber trade around the 1st Century BC and they used it in art objects, jewelry and even as currency. It was considered even more valuable than the slaves who harvested it.
During the Dark Ages amber could be found in religious objects, in the shape of the cross, and as sculptures of a religious nature. At the end of the 12th Century AD, the Teutonic Knights, upon coming home from the crusades as the rulers of Prussia, were in control of the manufacture of Baltic amber. It was used, during this period in rosaries and only religious representations. Anyone found with amber that wasn’t being used in a rosary could lose their life; such was the priceless nature of the gem.
Amber producing trees are known as Pinus Succinifera. Amber, which is called succinit, actually comes from the tree’s vascular tissues and is produced when either there is serious climate change or injury to the tree. Insects, wood, and leaves can become trapped in the resin, and act as time capsules of a sort, and have been studied by scientists.
Amber is not derived from minerals and stands as one of only 3 precious gems that come from vegetation, along with jet and diamonds. Baltic amber has some of the highest levels of succinite, which is what determines its value, and so is considered to be the best amber in existence.
Amber’s origins and uses have a complex and interesting history. Still highly valued today, it is seen as a look into the past, and many people proudly wear amber pendants, rings, bracelets, and earrings to represent ancestry and history.