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Amber: Poland’s Enigmatic Jewel

Baltic Sea AmberFor more than 6,000 years, mankind has sought to unravel the mysteries of amber, a curiously elusive precious stone forged from tree resin in the depths of the Baltic Sea over 44 million years ago.  In Poland, which claims the yellow, red, and orange stones as its national jewel, amber is treasured not only for its beauty, but for its mythical and medicinal properties.

Trade in amber stretches back to ancient times, along the famed “Amber Route,” which stretched from the Baltic Sea, down the Vistula and Dnieper rivers to the Mediterranean, Black Sea, and on to Syria and Egypt, where it was prized beyond gold. 

The ancients also pondered amber’s origin, creating many dramatic tales, such as Ovid’s tale of the god Apollo and his son, Phaeton, who longed to drive his father’s fiery sun chariot across the sky.  Apollo reluctantly agreed but Phaeton drove the chariot too close to the earth, threatening to destroy humanity.  Zeus hurled his thunderbolt at Phaeton and dashed him into the sea, where he perished.  Mourning their brother’s loss, Apollo’s daughters turned themselves into poplar trees and wept tears of amber.  Remarkably similar myths can be found in Lithuania, where the pagan Sea Goddess wept tears of amber after losing their love, and the Norse goddess, Freya, tricked by Loki into betraying her husband wept tears of shame, which turned into amber. 

Even today, amber is considered a token of good fortune: amber amulets or tokens are said not only to attract kind, warm, and generous people into one’s life but are also worn in challenging or dangerous situations, possibly why worry beads are often made of amber. 

Amber is also considered to have many positive medicinal properties, possibly because when rubbed amber emits natural electrical sparks - in fact the Greek word for amber “elektron” was the root for the word “electricity.”  However, amber is also associated with mourning one who has died too young, like Phaeton and the real-life Egyptian boy-pharaoh Tutankhamen whose funerary mask is adorned with amber beads. 

When heated, amber emits a pleasant resin smell, and can be molded easily into jewelry, sculpture or even massive decorative panels such as those from the sumptuous Amber Room of Russia’s Tsarskoye Selo.  This lavish gift from Frederick the Great to the Russian Tsarina Elizabeth was made during one of their rare periods of entente and was considered the eighth man-made wonder of the world.  Packed up in haste at the outbreak of World War II, the panels were evacuated from Leningrad with the rest of the city’s treasures but disappeared in the chaos of the war, and have never been found.  Tragic fates have befallen any who try to follow the trail of the Amber Room.

Krakow is one of the leading amber centers in Poland.  Visit the Cloth Hall off the town’s Main Market Square to browse and Tomasz Mikolajczyk’s Boruni Galleries to splurge.  Polish amber should always be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity. 

Medieval Krakow is a popular Alexander+Roberts destination on itineraries such as the comprehensive Grand Capitals of Eastern Europe by Rail.

Posted: 10/1/2015 11:53:26 AM by Alexander + Roberts