The Baltic Course

Second wind for the sun-stone

By Gediminas Pilaitis, Lietuvos Rytas

Amber is found in many places along the coast of Baltic sea, but it seems that for no other nation has amber become as important as it has to the people of Lithuania. For them, an amber nugget or a piece of art made from one is not simply some pretty trinket, but is a part of history, which is why Lithuania is called Amber Land

Although amber was exalted already in the time of the Roman empire in the verses of poet Ovidius, over the centuries other rare materials were used far more extensively in the jewelry business. Only recently has an interest in amber articles begun to grow. The demand for amber is growing due to forecasts predicting that deposits of amber should finally be exhausted within the coming fifty years.

Resin of Sembia

The world's largest amber deposits were discovered on the Sembia peninsula, now in Russia's Kaliningrad region. Industrial extraction of the petrified resin from prehistoric coniferous trees, reliably preserved on the slightly salted Baltic Sea bed for some 50 to 90 million years, has continued for over a century. Before World War II, when this former East Prussian territory belonged to Germany, the profit from amber extraction in the village of Palvininkiai, which is now known as Yantarniy (Russian for of amber), reached 1 million marks annually. At present, the Russian state-owned company, Amber Combine, is situated here. According to the deputy director of the company, Nikolay Petukhov, around 300 - 400 tons of amber is extracted from two quarries each year, the territory of which was once covered by the waters of the Baltic Sea.

Amber resources of the Yantarniy mines are estimated to suffice for some fifty years. At present, the volume of extracted amber is determined by customer demand. There have been cases, when the demand for amber amounted to an impressive 700 tons per year. On average, each square meter of ground contains approximately 1 kg of amber nuggets of various sizes.

The big amber pieces with fossils, such as insects, bits of bark, leaves and plants that have all hardened within the resin, are considered the most valuable. "There have been cases when we found pieces weighing five and even seven kilograms," noted N.Petukhov. "Such pieces are sent to museums or sold for a very high price."

At present, the plant employs 1,600 people. Out of 6 thousand inhabitants in Yantarniy, at least one member from each family is in some way connected to the production of amber. The average wage of the workers at the plant is 700 rubles per month.

If the weight of an amber nugget exceeds 1 kg, its cost adds up to between 1 and 3 US dollars per gram. For a nugget in the size of a 5 litas coin, the boys in the streets of Yantarniy would charge you 25 US cents. When visiting the Kaliningrad region, such souvenirs are gladly purchased by many a sentimental tourist from Germany.

Employees of the amber plant would say that plundering of the most valuable nuggets is to blame for the unprofitable work of the company, although each worker is checked thoroughly after the each shift. One can also enter Yantarniy only with special permits, issued by the border guards in Pionersk.

Earlier many more families in Yantarniy were engaged in the processing of amber, while now the number of workers has decreased, since locals are more engaged in the search for amber on their own, later selling it further for a more profitable result.

After a storm, local residents use sieves to catch amber nuggets washed ashore by the sea or search for amber on the ground churned by waves. For unemployed families, casual gathering of amber like this may be the only means of survival. However, the legislation of the Kaliningrad Region imposes administrative measures in the form of penalties for the voluntary and illegal search of amber.

Amber crafts

The greatest share of the amber found goes to Lithuania, which is the largest processor of raw amber. According to unofficial data, 10 tons of amber is imported from the Kaliningrad region to Lithuania annually. Russian authorities set quotas on the export of amber each year.

In order to increase turnover, a liberalizing program for amber exports is planned to come into effect in March. Russian amber is sold to Polish, German, Lithuanian and even Taiwanese businessmen; while the latter are not revealing how they intend to use the amber. There have been cases when small parties of contraband amber are arrested on the border.

The price of amber has grown by 25 percent over the last three years. Afraid that the sea may break the dams protecting the amber quarries, Kaliningrad miners closed the mines last year. For this reason, the cost of raw amber has increased even more.

The largest amount of amber is processed by the craftsmen of Lithuania's leading health resort Palanga, where a branch of the state art company was located in the past. Earlier various amber ornaments and souvenirs were made by this company. After closing, around 500 lost their jobs.

As of recently, the amber processing craft seems to be experiencing a revival - there are around 30 sole proprietorships engaged in the manufacturing and trade of amber ornaments and souvenirs in Palanga alone. These enterprises purchase raw amber, hire workshops and employ master craftsmen. More businesses dealing with amber processing have been established in Klaipeda, Kaunas, even Siauliai, as well as in the Taurage region bordering Kaliningrad.

"Palanga businessmen are the main suppliers of amber ornaments to the West-European market," says Feliksas Gulbinauskas, the owner of a Palanga- based company Gulbinausko suveniru dirbtuve (Gulbinauskas' souvenir workshops). "Lithuanian made articles from ground amber are acknowledged as the best in the world."

Polish craftsmen are the main rivals for Lithuanians; they usually encrust amber in different articles from precious metals. From 20 to 30 percent of all Baltic amber is found in the Polish region of Gdansk, including the largest and most beautiful samples.

Fossil business

Recently, a new trend in the amber business has appeared: people thinking of the future, invest their money in purchasing unique pieces of amber containing fossils. Experts say that the cost of such collections will skyrocket in the future.

In Western Europe, interest in amber and admiration of the soft stone is growing. In Germany, an Amber Union has been established, consisting of more than a hundred scientists, collectors, people from the art world and representatives of the business world. Members of this union spend hours discussing the wonderful burning stone (Bernstein, amber).

The heart of German professor Wolfgang Weitschatt breaks when he hears that unique samples of amber are sold for songs to the West, thus disappearing from the scientists' field of vision. The professor dreams of finding an amber nugget with a fossil of a flea hardened within the resin millions of years ago. Until now, there are only two such finds known in the world.

For every taste

"Germans are especially fond of ornaments from mat and royal white amber," notes Gulbinauskas. "The French love natural amber with the bits of plants fossilized inside. Japanese choose accurately ground amber, which in some ways reminds a licked toffee."

Amber nuggets of rare shades - white, dark blue, black are the most expensive ones. In art galleries of Western Europe, beads made of such amber make competition for articles made of gold in terms of cost. The price of a commercially produced amber article may usually vary from 40 to 100 US dollars.

In Lithuania, articles from massive amber are especially appreciated. Lithuanian emigrants to the U.S. have a special devotion to such products. The inhabitants of Scandinavian countries, who live on the shore of the same Baltic Sea, seem to mostly remain indifferent to amber goods. The Swiss have almost no awareness of amber, while the Chinese purchase amber products with pleasure.

Amber galleries

Even knowing that the commercial production of amber articles brings more profit, Lithuanian businessmen are more frequently choosing to manufacture exclusive amber products. Actually, their ideas don't always find support among the jewelers used to working with precious metals and jewels.

Virginija and Kazimiras Mizgiris, the founders of private amber galleries in Nida and Vilnius, have got down to solving this problem. Nearly two years ago, they opened a House of Artists in Nida, where symposiums for Lithuanian and foreign jewelers are run each summer, all expenses covered.

The jewelers decided to open the doors of their workshops for visitors in order to stay in continuous contact with them. While the Mizgiris couple lives and works in Nida, their works are exhibited in the House of Artists. Several professional jewelers have later admitted that work done by this family has helped see the true beauty of amber.

A museum in Nida holds samples of amber of different shades, fossils, fine ornaments, replicas of the Neolithic period and other amulets. A display in the courtyard of the museum depicts the process of amber formation in the depths of the sea.

Recently, the Mizgiris couple brought a part of their unique collection to Iceland. The Icelanders, who saw amber and amber articles for the first time, could not hide their admiration and didn't stop asking where this mineral could be found.

Refined customers are less interested in the cheap trinkets sold by street vendors. According to the Ģizgiris', it is necessary to reveal the beauty of amber in its entirety as much as possible. The amber boutiques that the Mizgiris couple opened in Vilnius and Riga boast original illumination and fine interiors.

Occasionally, fake amber can be found, therefore it is useful to know that amber does not sink in saltwater, and, when put under ultra-violet light, it shines bright like a banknote. Fake amber does comprise around 1 percent of its real turnover.

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