What do we know about Amber ?

What is Amber, the most popular description and answer is that it is a beautiful golden stone used in jewellery. But what is it? Where did it come from?

150,000,000 years old and that's a lot of candles on the birthday cake. We know that it is the fossilised resin of ancient pine trees now largely extinct.

As the mighty dinosaurs brushed against the pine trees causing wounds in the bark, the trees excreted resin to seal and heal the wound.

As the pine resin oozed out of the trees it covered anything in its path, such as flies, spiders and many insects. In fact more than 1,000 extinct species have been identified in amber. This process of hardening took many millions of years.

Throughout history, amber has been found in deposits all over the world. It varies in colour depending on the area where it was found and its age. Chinese, Burmese, Lebanese, Sicilian and Mexican ambers all vary in colour varying between very clear and almost black.

Today, the finest amber comes from the Baltic region. The most extensive deposits of Baltic Amber in Eocenian blue mud occur in the Sambian Peninsular and by the bay of Gdansk (Poland).

Natural Baltic amber (Succinite) varies in colour from lemon through yellow, orange to dark brown. It can be cloudy or clear. If the amber is almost white it contains millions of air bubbles. Dark clear amber was exposed to the air and seawater.

Amber was of great significance to the Assyrians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. Ovid wrote that when Phaeton, a son of Phoebus, the Sun, convinced his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the Sun across the sky for a day he drove too close to the earth and set it on fire.

To save the Earth, Jupiter struck Phaeton out of the sky with his thunderbolts and he died, plunging out of the sky. His mother and sister stricken by grief turned into trees whilst weeping and their tears dried by the sun turned into amber.

Another ancient writer, Nicias, said that amber was the essence of the setting sun, congealed in the sea and cast up on the shore. The ancient Greeks discovered that sparks were produced when the amber was rubbed against cloth and attracted small particles which is why the ancient Greeks called amber "elektron".

Amber was considered to contain magical powers and was, often worn as charms to offer protection from evil spirits and witchcraft. According to Mohammed, a true believer's prayer beads should be made of amber.

It was acclaimed to possess the power of healing. In 79 A.D. Pliny wrote that the women of N.Italy wore amber beads to protect them against thyroid disease.

Hippocrates, father of healing, declared amber active against a number of diseases including delirium tremens.

Martin Luther carried a piece of amber in his pocket as a protection against kidney stones.

The Amber Room

Centuries of artistry culminated in the 18th century with the creation of the Amber Room. This was a chamber where the walls were completed covered by a mosaic of a hundred thousand perfectly aligned, intricately carved pieces of amber. The Amber Room was built under the direction of architect Andreas Schluter jr. and built for the Prussian King Frederick I between 1701 and 1709. The amber was collected along the Baltic coast by special details of soldiers. The artisans polished these pieces sometimes heating them to change their colour and then cut them into interlocking pieces. However King Frederick William I was unhappy at this opulence and gave the Room to Peter the Great of Russia. He, in turn, was more interested in building the Russian navy and ignored the boxes of amber panels.

His daughter, Empress Elizabeth, instructed the famous Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to expand the Room to fit into the new palace, The Catherine Palace. As the wall 30ft high and almost double the height of the original amber chamber walls, the amber panels were framed in a cartouche of gilded boiserie with Florentine mosaics in the centre and 24 mirrors were added.

Here the Room remained until World War II. The Russians were unprepared for the speed of the Nazi attack in September 1941. They tried to cover the amber panels with wallpaper but this didn't fool the Nazis, who stripped the wallpaper off the panels and packed them into crates and sent them by truck and train to a Baltic seaport from which they disappeared on the eve of the Allied victory.

The original Amber Room was last seen in the city of Konigsberg, where it and other stolen artworks were on display during the war. In August 1944, RAF bombs destroyed the city centre and the king's castle, where the art was displayed. After the war this area of the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union and the town was renamed Kaliningrad. No remains of the Amber Room were found in the rubble of the castle. Various opinions abide as to the whereabouts of the Amber Room. Even Boris Yeltsin told the Germans that it remains hidden in Russia. Many Kaliningrad residents still believe that it remains in the immediate area. Whatever the truth is, it still remains today as one of the greatest single unsolved art thefts of the 20th century.

Over a period of thirty years, the Amber room has been reconstructed in its original home the Catherine Palace using old photographs and paintings and has been as exact as possible. The Amber room was officially reopened by President Putin in 2003.

So what do we now know about Amber:

· Each piece of Amber is unique.

· Amber's variation in colour reflects the four seasons and the wearer's mood.

· Amber has a wonderful texture, which is warm and pleasant to the touch.

· Amber, it is claimed, has magical properties; it has been used as an aphrodisiac, as a protection against evil and as a good luck charm.

· It is believed that Amber is medically beneficial. Its healing powers have been used to treat asthma, rheumatism and internal problems.

· The ancient Greeks believed that Amber should be worn as a protection against disease.

· Amber gives out negative ions, which help balance out the positive ions which are all around us in today's society.

· Amber is versatile, sophisticated and stylish.

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