Adornment Archives: Amber’s Ancient Appeal

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been captivated by amber. When I was young, my mom had an amber and sterling silver pendant from Poland that I would run into her room and grab whenever I heard her open her jewelry box. When I visited Berlin for the first time in 2007, my one souvenir goal was to bring home an amber bead statement necklace à la Iris Apfel; after negotiating for the better part of an hour with a Russian street vendor, I succeeded. Even last month at the Tucson gem show, I fought the urge to make a beeline to “amber alley” (as my mom and I have nicknamed the area where dozens of amber vendors display their tempting wares each year) as soon as we walked through the door. Resistance was futile, and I soon found myself adding another caramel strand to my already robust amber collection.

I know I’m not alone. When I wear my beloved amber pieces, people of all ages stop me on the street and we bond over our shared love of its golden-honey-butterscotch-egg-yoke goodness. Indeed, the attraction of this fossilized resin (to be considered true amber it has to be over 100,000 years old) cannot be overstated. For thousands of years, people across cultures and eras have assigned amber myriad uses and significances.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that amber could shield people from misfortune, and travelers across cultures carried amber to protect them throughout the course of their journeys. Ancient Egyptians inserted tiny pieces of amber beneath the skin of their mummies to preserve them from decay, and placed amber amulets in the tombs to protect the dead in the afterlife. To early Christians, amber represented the presence of God. The Chinese call amber hu-po (“soul of the tiger”), which stems from the belief that the soul of the tiger went underground where it transformed into amber. In Japan, perfectly round amber bead necklaces are worn as a status symbol.

Until recently, I had always associated amber with Germany, Poland, and the Baltic countries in Northern Europe (which is where the main supply comes from). While I was at the gem show in Tucson, I discovered dazzling blue amber that hails from the Dominican Republic, Indonesia and Mexico. The blue caste comes from a fluorescence stimulated by ultra-violet light. That means it has rich, deep amber undertones combined with blue-green hues that dance about the surface. It may be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Since it’s over 20 million years old and limited quantities exist, blue amber is very valuable. In other words, I won’t be adding a blue amber necklace to my collection anytime soon, but I’d gladly borrow yours!

Amber isn’t used exclusively used for jewelry, of course. For generations, artists from around the world have been inspired by amber’s various hues and forms. At the Amber Sculpture Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania, you can see an entire chess set and a ship (sails and all) fashioned from amber, as well as an impressive collection of detailed amber figurines. Also in Lithuania, the Palanga Amber Museum boasts a comprehensive collection of massive amber chunks and objets d’art (including a 16th-century cross, cigarette holders and decorative boxes).

As I put the finishing touches on this piece, I have proof that amber will continue to appeal to the next generation. My 4-yr-old budding amber aficionado just curled up next to me, pointed to a photo on my computer screen and said, “Mom, let’s get one with lots of bugs in it!” She knows I’m game.




By Jen Westmoreland Bouchard