Lithuania / Science / Travel

Baltic Amber: Humble Beginning, Flashy Finish

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A hungry mosquito buzzes through a thick Lithuanian pine forest in search of a plump Eohippus. Her empty bug belly growls a warning that she hasn’t eaten, but still, she decides to rest.

This is one unlucky mozzie, because not only is she unable to locate breakfast, she’s just landed in a gooey drop of resin oozing down the bark of a large pine tree. Forty million years later, this unfortunate bug is forever entombed in a beautiful amber necklace in a Vilnius jewelry store window.

Amber, which is nothing more than fossilized pine resin, has been highly prized for thousands of years. It’s been used as an ingredient in perfumes, as a healing agent in folk medicines, and most notably, in jewelry. And given the resin’s super-sticky character, the fossilized nodules of amber can be scientific time capsules as well. Everything from a flea carrying plague bacteria to dinosaur feathers have been found in amber globules.

Mines in Lithuania and around the Baltic Area are the source of 80% of the earth’s amber. In addition to being mined, amber nodules wash out of the native rock onto Baltic sea beaches, adding a bit of zest to a beachcomber’s day.

Given a readily available supply nearby, artisans and jewelers in the Old Town of Vilnius craft amber into tempting tidbits to entice locals and tourists alike.

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The natural color varies from deep brown to clear, golden yellow, and if you can imagine it, the shops have it made in amber. They sell jewelry of course, but they also have paperweights, carved animals, letter openers, keychains, sailing ships … and my personal favorite, sandals!

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The “Amber Road” was an ancient trade route which passed through Lithuania on its way from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. So in this part of the world, amber is more than earrings and necklaces, it’s a part of Lithuanian history. And a stop in the markets of Vilnius is a good place to see, and buy, part of this history.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

One of the most astounding and famous uses for amber was “The Amber Room”. Created in the 18th Century, stolen and lost by the Nazis, and reconstructed by Russia in 2003. It now sits in the Catherine Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Photo Credits: 2. Didier Desouens  3. Emmanuel Boutet

 

10 thoughts on “Baltic Amber: Humble Beginning, Flashy Finish

  1. It’s no wonder people found amber so fascinating, it’s almost magical, being able to freeze a moment in time … forever. It’s a little like what Dorothea Lange said about photography: “Photograph takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” Thank you for sharing those moments of beauty.

    • Your phrase “moment in time” is a good one. In fact, I wish I’d thought of it and it would have been in the post. 🙂 The geologic process, I’m talking fossils here, can preserve the form of a thing, but usually not the thing itself. Amber is the exception, and you’re right that the results can be fascinating. ~James

    • Sue, the passage of geologic time preserves lots of hard things, but the soft, gooey stuff, not so much. Pine resin is the exception, and amber is the result. I hope that you and Dave are well and stay warm for the holidays. And, as always, thanks for dropping by the blog. ~James

  2. I had no idea that the majority of the Earth’s amber comes from the Baltic area. I don’t know if it is technically considered a gemstone, but it makes some of the most beautiful and interesting jewelry. It is amazing what things have been encapsulated by the amber, even bubonic plague carrying fleas. Wow!

    • Joe, I imagine that the emerging disease scientists would love to get there hands on a few of these disease carrying bugs trapped in amber: for instance, did early humans get the plague? But one thing I have a hard time wrapping my mind around is the sheer volume of resin required to produce all this amber. I’ve put my hand in my share of sticky pine resin, but unless paleo-pine trees were different than today’s trees, I just can’t believe the amount of amber. But, there it is to prove me wrong. It’s pretty amazing stuff.. ~James

  3. I’ve seen some really pretty jewelry made from amber, but I had no idea it was used for so many other things. Honestly, I’m not so sure about the sandals. I wonder if the tree were monstrous back then and just produce more sap. Hmmm.

    • Laura, until we visited Latvia and Lithuania I thought that amber was relatively rare, but obviously, not in this area. And I had the same question, where does all this pine resin come from? There must have been a big forest in this area for a long time to generate this much amber. And I agree, those sandals are pretty wacky. ~James

  4. Amber is one of the few stones I love to collect. I’ve got several pieces, most from Prague. I’m fascinated by the story of how it comes to be as well as what people make of it. Thanks for great pics of all — even the sandals!

    • Rusha, we visited Prague not long ago and I remember seeing lots of amber. I suspect they have a direct supply line to the Baltic dealers. Do any of your pieces have interesting inclusions? As a resident of the south, you need a piece with a skeeter in it. 🙂 ~James

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