Amber is a mineral of many names: 'jantar', good stone, sacred stone, gold of the north, Baltic gold, and electron. Amber is also a mineral of many colours. Depending on the age amber nuggets range from nearly white, through all shades of yellow and orange, to dark, almost cherry-like red. Amber has been an object of admiration and interest for centuries. Its beauty, pleasing smell, and ease of processing have always earned it a place among decorative stones. The "golden sun-beads" were first praised by Homer himself. Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, wrote: "Among luxury goods it is valued so high that an amber human figurine, no matter how small, costs much more than men in their prime (slaves)". Considered a precious raw material, amber was used as legal tender. It was also believed to have magical power and healing properties. Turned to precious amulets ages ago, today amber is used in the cosmetic industry and folk medicine. Amber liquor is a known cure for an array of ailments. The most vivid interest, however, has for centuries been stirred by inclusions. Lumps of amber frequently feature insects and plant fragments, bits of life from times millions of years ago sunk in resin and preserved forever.
Amber in History
The earliest exhibits testifying to the fact that amber was known and worked in the Gdańsk area date back to 8 - 4 thousand years B. C. The finds indicate it was ascribed magical power. The locals produced amber amulets in the shape of animals, deities, and hero figurines for cult purposes.
Gdańsk lies on the crossroads of both ancient and contemporary amber routes. Back in history the land trade routes between different European cultures ran along the major rivers, including the Vistula . All led south towards the Black Sea reaching Rome (the Roman Aquilea tract), and Greece (the Hellenic Alexandropolis route). The Vistula amber route linked the Gdańsk Coastal area with the Mediterranean countries and was travelled along at least as early as in the 5 th century B.C. Between ca. 400 B. C. and ca. 30 AD Europe was dominated by the Celts. Amber was always present in their culture. The Celtic tribes spread over vast regions of Europe reaching Italy and the Balkans on the Adriatic coast. Celtic merchants revived the old and laid down new amber routes linking Italy and Iliria to the "amber coast" of Southern Baltic. The importance of amber routes for Europe went beyond the sphere of economy. Journeys spread the learning and culture. Trade was a pretext to get to know, establish closer contacts, and understand various cultures and civilisations.
The Dawn of the Amber Grandeur
The earliest evidence of an amber workshop in Gdańsk dates back to the late 10 th century. In those times the local dukes held the exclusive right to fish and mine amber. The subject-fishermen had to obtain an amber-fishing licence from the city rulers. The variety of amber goods then offered was already unexpectedly high. They included beads, rings, pendants, dice, pawns, and amulets. After the great baptism of Gdańsk by St. Adalbert the assortment was broadened to include amber crosses. The amber works made by the Gdańsk craftsmen were meant not only for the local market. They were also sold around other cities in the Polish territory. Finished goods and the raw material itself were transported to Flanders . Amber became exceptionally sought for in the 14 th century, when the Pomerania was seized by the Teutonic Order. Trading in the raw material generated sizeable income. Amber was exported to Bruges , Lübeck, Amsterdam , Antwerp , Köln, Nurnberg , and Venice . Amber stores were heavily guarded, and hiding a find could earn as much as capital punishment! The policy of the knights was not, however, conducive to the development of amber crafts.
Amber art in Gdańsk flourished again under the rule of Casimir the Jagiellonian who bestowed the city with land rich in amber deposits. In the times of royal Poland Gdańsk, rich and widely known in Europe , was acclaimed a major centre of amber craft. The art works produced then included sacral sculpture and practical objects such as various tableware, caskets, boxes, candle holders, clocks, and picture frames. The first amber guild was established in Gdańsk in 1477.
The Golden Age of Amber in Gdańsk
The turn of 16 th and 17 th centuries is nicknamed the Gdańsk "golden age". Rich city dwellers, the nobility, aristocrats, the clergy, and Polish royalties placed numerous orders for amber artefacts. Amber goods even made their way to dukes 'and monarchs' courts all over Europe . Masterpieces by Gdańsk amber artists were esteemed the most precious diplomatic souvenirs for popes, tsars, sultans, caliphs, and the most powerful rulers of Europe , including the French Luis 14 th, the "Sun King". Amber gems deserving inclusion in top collections became the true hallmark of the city.
Inspired by architecture, as early as in the mid-16 th century amber masters began creating works following the classic structural order, to resemble well-fitted walls of stone buildings. Larger pieces of art had their walls doubled to make up for amber fragility. This very method was employed to create the famous lost Amber Chamber. Masters from Gdańsk had the largest share in the project. Its idea came from Andreas Schlüter, an eminent Gdańsk amber master who developed the detailed design of the interior. The first master entrusted with implementing the project was Gottfried Wolfram, also from Gdańsk . The subsequent two builders, masters of the Gdańsk guild, Gottfried Turau and Ernest Schacht, completed Schlüter's project and saved the work of art from destruction looming in the air when King Frederick William ordered to discontinue the works shortly before their completion.
Back to Tradition
The two world wars wiped out the European amber craft. Not a single workshop in Gdańsk survived. Right after the last war many artists made an attempt to restore the city's great tradition. Initially, however, they went back to the earliest function amber would play - that of an ornament of the attire. Today, Gdańsk amber masters and their art enjoy world-wide appreciation. On the one hand, they continue the grand style of their exquisite predecessors. On the other, they reach for the vanguard. Again, their creative imagination has no limits. Soon, St Bridget's Church in Gdańsk will strike awe with a magnificent amber altar!
The World Amber Capital
Bound with the sea and the "Baltic Gold of North", Gdańsk has cultivated the tradition of amber craft for ages. The local masters have developed their own amber processing school, and the quality of their works is unrivalled elsewhere. The Baltic amber, or succinite, is actually hardened mineral resin originally formed 40 million years ago. The mineral contains a relatively large admixture of succinic acid, which gives it its exceptional healing properties. Gdańsk has always been a major centre of mining and processing this unique mineral famous for magnificent amber works of art. As such, the contemporary Gdańsk is a respected centre of the related scientific research. Here are the main offices of the National Amber Chamber of Commerce and the International Association of Amber Masters. Gdańsk hosts the world's largest amber fairs: AMBERIF and AMBERMART. It is a recognised site on both the historic, and the contemporary amber route. The beginnings of first amber collections in the city date back to the second half of the 17 th century with inclusions in the centre of interest. To recognise Gdańsk 's acclaim for amber and the mastery of its artists one of the stone varieties was called gedanit after the city name. Many historic and modern amber routes converge at the World Amber Capital.
An Amber Tour of Gdańsk
It is certainly worth your while to take an amber tour of Gdańsk whilst in the city. The recommended itinerary is as follows:
Gdańsk History Museum. In 2000 the institution formed a new branch, the AmberMuseum, and to celebrate the fact it arranged an exhibition of "The Polish Sea Gems". The new unit will soon be moved to its premises in the Gateway compound. The Town Hall of the Main City currently displays Lucjan Myrta's amber works. This famous amber artist has amassed one of the largest collections in the world. The works of art range from miniatures to huge structures and their making involved all known amber craft techniques such as intaglio, eglomisée, inlay, bas-relief, and sculpture. The most beautiful exhibits include the world's largest sculpture carved in a single piece of amber. It is "A Naked Woman after A.Rodin" weighing 2.5 kg. The exhibits form a magnificent kernel of the museum's future collection. Their interest focuses on early and contemporary art, and amber in its natural forms.
Amber Museum - Branch of the Gdańsk History Museum, 26 Targ Węglowy St. , tel. (+48) 789 449 649, www.mhmg.pl.
Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk invites to its regular exhibition entitled "Amber through Centuries". It is arranged in two sections picturing amber in nature and culture. The visitors can study the origins of amber, its varieties, see archaeological exhibits of works in amber and amber-craft gear from the earliest palaeolithic tools, through ancient times, the Middle Ages, to the contemporary times. The museum arranges practical shows of ancient amber processing technology against a map of amber routes criss-crossing ancient Europe.
Archaeological Museum, 25/26 Mariacka St. , tel. (+48 58) 322 21 00, www.archeologia.pl.
Opening hours out of season:
Opening hours in the season:
St. Bridget's Church originating from the turn of the 14 th and 15 th centuries went down in the history annals in August 1980 during the worker strikes. The austere church interior will soon be adorned with a unique work of art, i.e. a monumental amber altar. 11 m high and 6 m wide, the altar will be arranged in the form of a triptych with an icon of the Working Class Madonna in the centre. The work is a reproduction of Our Lady of Częstochowa intended to commemorate the 28 workers who fell in December 1970. It will be adorned with a milk-white amber gown and a crown made of bright yellow amber. The altar itself is given the shape of a lily evoking associations with the Gothic heraldic lily. The altar retable will depict scenes of Gdańsk city life, and the central space is reserved for a gilded sphere-shaped tabernacle. Sections of the altar in development and a magnificent amber monstrance can already be contemplated on site.
St. Bridget's church, 17 Profesorska St., tel. (+48 58) 301 31 52, www.brygida.gdansk.pl.
Amber Workshops and Galleries
Gdańsk is famous for many recognised amber workshops mostly located in the beautiful houses of the Old Town . Some let tourists watch the process of working amber and turning it into amber jewellery. We encourage you to visit numerous exclusive galleries and tiny jeweller shops offering amber products: exquisite jewellery, smart ornamental objects, lamps with stain-glass-type shades featuring all colours of amber, and little souvenirs perfect for a gift or a reminder of your stay in the amber city of Gdańsk .
Summer Amber Festival during St Dominic Fair
The rich calendar of cultural and open-air events organised during the traditional August fair (continuing the Middle Age tradition) includes a day devoted to amber, the Gdańsk treasure. Exhibitions, interesting competitions, jewellery making to the visitors' own designs, presentations, 'amber fashion' shows, and live-workshops providing an insight into the "good stone" processing, arranged amongst open-air stands of Gdańsk amber artists provide a splendid opportunity to have fun and buy a beauty souvenir of the Baltic gold. Happening-type events in amber-work yielding masterpieces that are then added to the Amber Museum collection have become traditional. The unusual objects created during the events include e.g. the two world's longest bead-strings, a button 31 cm in diameter and 1.5 kg in weight made of translucent profiles of natural, light-yellow amber, and a bracelet composed of 210 framed sections each holding a composition of amber and wire produced by the visitors to the Amber Day 2003.
St. Dominic Fair - the first three weeks of August - in the streets and squares of the Old Town - for the programme and dates of the nearest fair go to the cultural calendar on: www.gdansk.pl
No one planning to visit Gdańsk in the springtime should miss visiting the trade fair pavilions during the big annual amber event. For as long as ten years now the International Gdańsk Fairs have organised the AMBERIF International Fair of Amber, Jewellery and Gems. It is the largest trade fair and exhibition event devoted to the Baltic jewel in the world. The fair is accompanied with the Designer Gallery, Jewellery Gallery, Palaeonthologic Gallery, as well as numerous scientific seminars, an international competition for the best amber jewellery design called Elektronos'2004, and the Mercurius Gedanensis Jewellery Design Competition with one of the categories reserved for an Amber Jewellery Set. The ten AMBERIF editions can take pride in one huge achievement. They have introduced amber into the artistic and designer galleries of the world. The magic beauty of the masterpieces carved in both the ancient and vanguard styles presented during the fair is absolutely breathtaking. Just imagine a necklace of raw stones arranged on a simple grey string, next to a huge glistening piece of amber finely set in silver and hung on a silk scarf or a smart chiffon ribbon, a leather pendant or handbag adorned with a beautifully golden stone. Try to picture the unexpected effects of combining amber with other minerals such as turquoise, pearls or coral interspersed with silver cubes or discs. The list could be long. Do join the amber "feast".
AMBERIF International Amber, Jewellery and Gem Fair
Photos: Archives of City Promotion Department, City Hall of Gdańsk
The publishers thank:
|Ms Joanna Mężyk-Grążawska for expert consultation, Mr Lucjan Myrta for making the photos of his amber collection deposited with the Amber Museum (branch of the Gdańsk History Museum) free of charge (photos by: M. Żak), and the International Gdańsk Fairs S.A. for the permission to publish the photographs of:
an amber nodule - sugar variety (photo by: G. Gierłowska); an element of the northern wall frame of the Amber Chamber - wall-trophy and Biblical scene: 'David and Saul' (photo by: G. Gierłowska); a fragment of a traditional amber necklace (photo by: G. Gierłowska); a pendant created at K. Buzalski's studio; a work by D. Zarański.