Tossed onto shores by the Baltic Sea, amber has been coveted, traded, and used as jewelry for thousands of years, making its way from Northern Europe to the Black Sea by way of a trade route called the Amber Road.
Fascination for amber has waned little over the centuries, and today, visitors to Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Russia can buy Baltic amber jewelry in shops, with quality ranging from small, rough pieces joined with elastic to form necklaces and bracelets to designer pieces made with precious metals.
Let’s learn about what amber from the Baltics is, what types of Baltic amber you can find, the history of amber in the Baltic Sea countries and legends surrounding it, and how to shop for amber in this region.
What Is Baltic Amber?
Baltic amber, called succinite, is the fossilized resin of trees that grew millions of years ago. When trees were injured by animals or weather, they released their sap to heal the wound. As climate changed and natural processes such as heat, pressure, and those of microorganisms took effect, fossilization occurred.
Ancient peoples, who found this golden-colored “stone” washed up on shores, quickly learned how to use it for decoration, and carved pieces of amber have been found that date back thousands of years.
Today, in some areas like the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia, it is mined. However, people along the Baltic Sea coast, like their ancestors, go searching for this “gold of the north” after a storm, when it washes up on beaches.
Amber is more than just an interesting natural find, though. It has several uses.
Jewelers working with Baltic amber either allow the raw or polished nuggets to shine on their own or pair it with various metals.
However, for medicinal use, Baltic amber is often used as a teething remedy for children; worn as a necklace, the amber is said to ease pain because it releases small amounts of a curative acid when worn against the warmth of the skin (this claim has not been scientifically proven).
As a Part of Souvenirs
As a novelty and a symbol of the region, small amber nuggets are also incorporated into magnets, pictures, or soaps as well as personal accessories and decorative items for the home.
For Scientific Study
From a scientific perspective, amber is valuable as a material that preserves flora and fauna—insects or plant life that got caught in the sticky resin when it was released from the trees can sometimes be found in pieces of amber, offering insight into the ancestors of today’s natural world. These pieces of amber are highly collectible and can command high prices depending upon the type and quality of the preserved specimen!
Types of Baltic Amber
Baltic amber comes in various colors. Yellow amber, often called lemon amber or butter amber, is typical, as is honey amber—that warm-colored amber between yellow and red. But green amber and cherry or red amber are also available in this region. Amber can be translucent or opaque, and treating amber allows artisans to bring out the natural beauty of the material.
Baltic Amber Colors
- Lemon or butter
Artisans have developed various ways to process amber. Natural Baltic amber may be used as it is found, smoothed only by the sea waves, or polished by hand. Heat or pressure treatment may be used on some amber to improve its degree of translucency.
Reconstructed amber is also amber that has been treated with heat and pressure, but during this process, pieces of amber are fused together, creating an internal texture that catches the light appealingly. Bonded amber is made when multiple pieces of amber are joined using a bonding agent—the pieces may be of uniform color or a variety of colors.
Amber has been prized in the Baltics and elsewhere since ancient times–it was believed to be magical, and amulets made of amber were thought to be imbued with powerful qualities of protection. Amber accompanied warriors into battle and has been found in jewelry and figurine form in gravesites.
The Amber Road
As trade developed in the region, amber became a desirable commodity. Like the Silk Road that allowed silk to be transported from China to the West, the Amber Road was a route stretching from the Baltic Sea to Southeastern Europe for the trade of amber.
Lithuania and Poland may have been the start of this route, which was used from as early as the 16th century BC and into Roman times. A modern Amber Road, developed for tourists, took inspiration from the historic iteration from this route and includes cities along the Baltic Sea coast.
The Era of the Teutonic Knights
In the European Middle Ages, amber was sought after as a material for making rosary beads as territories became Christianized. The Teutonic Knights, who conquered vast swathes of the Baltic region, realized its worth and forbade its collection by anyone unauthorized to do so.
This amber was collected for distribution in what is today Malbork, Poland, and if you visit this castle today you can see a recreation of an amber treasury room.
This ban on unauthorized collection of amber lasted through the Prussian era. The Prussian government eventually relinquished its monopoly on amber collection.
Amber was found in plentiful supply as little as a couple of centuries ago, when along with being collected on beaches, boats dredged the ocean for it. Eventually, it began to be mined, and this is the origin of amber mining in Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast today.
The Amber Room
One of art history’s biggest mysteries centers around the Amber Room, a room in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg covered in panels of carved amber in various shades. It was removed by Nazi troops during WWII and taken to Konigsberg, now Kaliningrad.
The fate of the Amber Room is not known—was it destroyed in a fire, sunk along with a submarine transporting it, moved to another place, acquired by a collector who never came forward, or something else?
While an investigation concluded that it was destroyed along with the fortress it was held in during bombing in 1944, alternative stories about its continued existence or demise continue to circulate.
The Amber Room has been recreated and can be visited today in St. Petersburg.
Legends About Baltic Amber
Even though the inclusions found in amber indicated a forest-area origin, early peoples tried to determine the source of amber, with various Greek figures theorizing it came from the tears of a bird or the urine of animals.
The Lithuanians and Poles cultivated a legend about Jurate, a mermaid who cried for a fisherman she loved—the amber is variously described as her tears or the pieces of her castle carried away on the waves.
The Gauya Bird
The Latvian legend comes closest to the true origins of amber. According to the story, a king wanted for himself the necklace of the Gauya bird, made of translucent golden stone. But the Gauya bird, enraged at the necklace being taken from her nest, grabbed the thief and dropped him and the necklace into the sea, where the beads of the necklace drifted apart and sprouted into a forest. But the forest, not being able to reach the surface of the water and the sunshine, cried tears that turned into amber and were washed with the waves onto land.
Trees “crying tears” sounds very much like injured trees leaking sap!
How to Shop for Amber
Shopping for Baltic amber is highly dependent upon the preferences and budget of the shopper. You may find bracelets and necklaces of amber made of tiny nuggets even at streetside souvenir stands, which may be satisfactory if you want to pick up a few inexpensive baubles to share when you return home.
Dedicated Amber Shops
If you’re a serious amber shopper, though, you’re better off seeking out dedicated amber shops and modern designers.
Amber shops will offer the widest range of color and size, though the styles offered may be a bit limited.
Look for polished round or faceted amber beads strung together to form necklaces or bracelets, impressive amber rings, eye-catching brooches, fanciful earrings, and a selection of amber or amber-covered objects, such as miniature sailboats made from amber.
Classic Silver and Gold Amber Jewelry
Amber is typically set in silver, possibly because it is meant to appeal to tourists who may not have time to contemplate a more costly purchase in gold.
After all, amber prices continue to rise, and it is easy to spend several hundred euros on a single lustrous piece, particularly when it is set in precious metal. However, silver also contrasts well with the rich tones of amber, whereas gold has a complementary tone.
Some designers seeking to appeal to younger, fashionable tastes have re-envisioned amber jewelry by favoring rough pieces of amber or working amber into minimalist designs that are more personal and casual than the amber jewelry preferred by their grandmothers. These up-to-date designs can be worn for everyday purposes and work well with modern trends.
Where to Buy Amber in Lithuania
- Ketri: Ketri uses angles, curves, and geometric shapes in pieces that are wearable and unique. Available online or Locals.lt.
- Bambero: Also available at Locals.lt, Bambero takes the simple round bead bracelet and ratchets it up a notch with the use of black amber and hints of lemon or honey-colored amber.
- Opakopa: This Nida-based jewelry maker focuses on ultra-minimalist designs meant to be worn as everyday accessories. Find on Etsy and shops in Klaipeda and Nida.
- Kameja: Located in shopping centers throughout Vilnius and other cities in Lithuania, Kameja offers a wide range of silver jewelry made by designers from Druskininkai.
- Shops along Pilies Street in Old Town Vilnius: In my experience, the shops catering to tourists in Lithuania seem to offer a range of similar items, from pieces you still see on grandmothers to more pared-down pieces. You will see similar shops/designs in the tourist centers of Latvia.
Where to Buy Amber in Poland
Generally speaking, depending upon personal taste, amber jewelry sold in Poland is more elegant, wearable, and with an eye for modern sensibilities, than that found in Lithuania. Some places to buy Baltic amber in Poland include:
- Art Gallery Amber Silver Line: This tasteful shop on the main square in Old Town Warsaw has a beautiful selection of delectable amber jewelry. You’ll find everything from classic pieces to super-modern statement jewelry.
- Art Studio Jewellery Schubert: Also found in Old Town Warsaw, Schubert offers everything from grandmotherly elegance to bold and funky amber accessories, including lighters, business card cases, and keyrings.
- Mariacka Street: This historic street in Gdansk is the location of some of the best amber shops in this city, known well for its amber. Take an afternoon to browse the shops before deciding on your perfect souvenir.
Amber, being a material that loves to be touched, is best shopped for in person. Talk to the salesperson, ask questions, try on pieces, and figure out which one calls out to you. Your Baltic amber jewelry purchase will draw curiosity from those not familiar with the “gold of the north” and may even be able to be passed down the generations with proper care.
Kalnins, Mara. Latvia: A Short History. Hurst. 2015