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Amber, The Sea Gold Of The Baltic
Amber-"sunshine caught and transmuted to gold" by the Baltic, and thrown ashore in the storms, was traded over the ancient world. It was taken to the Rhine and down the Rhone to the trading port that became Massila and later Marseilles. The French called it ambre. The Arabs, world traders, spread it east and west as anbar.
Homer had Eumaeus, the slave, tell of being lured aboard a Phoenician ship while its traders engaged his folks over a necklace of gold and amber. The Scythians from north and east of the Caspian, traded honey, wax and furs for it then swapped it to the Chinese and Thibetans.
The Goths gathered it for fuel and took some down the Elbe to the Danube for trade with the Teutons who marveled at the price traders from the South would pay. Nero sent an expedition for Baltic amber and got over six tons with one thirteen pound piece. Medieval German knights whose lands lay along the "amber coast" waxed rich from their monopoly of this precious "gum jewel."
AMBER IS BEAUTIFUL AND HIGHLY WORKABLE
Most amber is tough and durable, though some shatters. The ancients found it could be heated and shaped -to suit-a marvelous quality in a world with few plastics, save glass. Amber was soft enough to all but cut with the thumb nail, so it could be pierced and carved with simple tools.
Sculptured amber gods, goddesses, cups, bowls, reliquaries and ornamental fruits and flowers honored ancient temples. The Chinese carved masterfully, suiting a piece of several colors to their design. Amber inlays beautified furniture. Jewel boxes, picture frames, fans, combs and decorated mirror backs delighted my lady. So did ear drops, necklaces, arm bands, hair pins, girdle ornaments, and brooches. Seals, cameos and intaglios of amber served Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian, and Roman.
German knights, medieval bishops and Renaissance kings prized their amber drinking cups. In the J. Pierpont Morgan wing of the Metropolitan Museum are four German amber cups, some two=toned, all wonderfully shaped, and enriched with gold, silver, enamels and carving. Besides its own elegance, amber beautified the liquid it held and it disclosed poison in the drink -'twas said.
As dagger handles, blade inlays, warriors' weapons, and "costume" accessories, amber had exceeding value. It showed the owner's importance, protected him and healed his wounds.
AMBER HAD MAGICAL QUALITIES
Perhaps amber's greatest demand came from fear of illness, witchcraft, and death; also hope for happiness. Pliny says amulets of amber protected the child wearer against disease, and powdered amber dropped in the eyes prevented cataracts.
The medieval clergy carried crosses or sacred hearts of amber to shield them from plagues and diseases. Renaissance Europeans widely believed amber cured catarrh and epilepsy.
China prescribed various ambers for various ills. Amber "from a tree whose roots were broken, not rotted, so the tree gum drained cleanly to earth" to become metamorphosed to amber, cured heart and kidney trouble. Powder from black amber corrected female complaint and bowel obstruction.
Tibetan women, who, like the people of India and Mexico, love amber incense, wear strings of amber some with beads as large as tea cups. But women, agelessly, have put faith in amber necklaces. The Scotch mother "simply had to have" a necklace of "lammar" for her daughter to wear on her wedding night to assure wedded bliss.
Generations of European women have handed down amber beads to their daughters, so insuring "long life and good luck." American grandmothers, when children, wore amber necklaces to prevent throat troubles. And amber with gnats, flies, twigs and leaves had great power against evil and witchcraft, many believed.
AMBER-BRILLIANT, CLEAR, CLOUDED, AND OF MANY COLORS
Luster is prized in amber. So is clearness or translucency which lets each bead or object pool its jewel-toned light on lovely throat or sacred altar. Cloudy ambers are preferred by some.
Baltic ambers range from light straw through yellow and sun gold to orange and brown. Turkestan produces black amber; Siberia, white; and Korea, Japan, and Burma, cherry red. Catania, at Mt. Etna's southern foot, has a famous "green-tinged" amber and a "purplish toned" amber. Roumanian amber includes brown, red, orange, and a black amber with green tints. Mexico has a clear golden amber which the Aztecs carved for 'their kings, gods, and temples, and burned on their altars for incense.
Amber "of objects and figures" is generally yellow to brownish and transparent enough to show the million year old life imprisoned in this fossilized gum of pine trees that "cried out their tears" on prehistoric lake and sea shores. The women of ancient Rome bid higher in the markets for this amber "than for a healthy and vigorous male slave"-to Pliny's complete disgust.
It is said there are fifty varieties of amber, according to color, toughness, and transparency. Color favorites vary. Cherry red, cloudy or milk white, opaque lemon, and clear golden yellow often rate high. One Catania necklace in the Dublin International Exhibition in 1865 contained blue, wine red, bright red, and reddish yellow amber beads.
AMBER AND ITS FAKES
Amber is wax smooth, light in weight, and "warm" to touch. Dust and scraps not saved for incense are hydraulically pressed into rods and carved into jewelry. A magnifying glass generally shows the pressed edges.
Rubbing amber alerts its magnetic or electrical quality and it attracts tissue paper or small objects. Thales of Miletus discovered this some 2500 years ago so the Greeks called amber, electrum. The Chinese say "rub it with the fingers to warm it and true amber will attract mustard seed;" others say "with cloth" or "with wool," and test it with bits of tissue, leaves or straw. Pressed amber, well rubbed, will pass this test. Bakelite, glass, and celluloid will not, and in the "brine test" they sink. Natural amber and pressed amber will float on brine.
Glass is heavy and, tapped on things, sounds like glass. Amber is light and has a muted tone. Celluloid burns rapidly, explosively; amber burns slowly and gives off an odor, some say "sharp and stinging" others "it smells like pine."
Amber "of objects and figures"-faked by drilling and implanting flies, leaves, or drops of water in clear amber, then filling the hole-can be detected by the magnifying glass.
Though its popularity is in eclipse in this plastic conscious world, amber is still a jewel of warm, soft and glowing beauty to discriminating collectors.