The golden and contrasting darker-streaked hues within amber jewelry surely caught my eye when visiting Poland’s Gdansk region. I never quite fully realized the beauty of highly polished amber stones with their naturally formed impurities that give the stones such unique design and grandeur, thus making them so precious and expensive. “Amber is the region’s gold,” says Gdansk tour guide Jacek Skibiňski. “It’s only here that the world’s best amber is found.”
A look around some of the jewelry stores reveals just that, with amber necklaces running into the thousands of dollars. At the Millennium Gallery, just steps from the historic Green Gate along Gdansk’s pedestrian riverfront, jeweler Dominika Bielicka-Sobieska conducts a demonstration (YouTube link below) on how to test for the authenticity of amber.
“Amber floats in a solution of 20 percent salt water,” she explains. “It also burns with an aromatic odor. This is the way we can distinguish real amber from fake, because amber is so precious that you can find plenty of imitations.”
Most of the amber found along the northern coast of Poland is about 40-45 million years old, formed from tree resin released during catastrophic events. Some of the amber stones come from deep within the Baltic Sea, usually washed up after a storm, while much is still buried underground. Naturally forming, amber has many impurities in it like sand and insects (yes, as seen in the movie Jurassic Park).
“When you go to the beach after a storm, amber may look like a piece of wood,” notes Bielicka-Sobieska. “But when you pick it up, it’s very light.” White amber is around 50 million years old, she says, while green amber came later often filled with air bubbles, grass and plants. Insects including flies and mosquitoes are clearly seen in some pieces. There are more than 200 shades, while the 40-45 million-year-old cognac-colored amber is the most popular.
Housed in the medieval Prison Tower dating back to the 14th century, Gdansk’s Amber Museum showcases amber goblets, candelabra, beer steins, model ships and even an amber-plated Stratocaster guitar. I also found another incredible amber display at Malbork, the 13th century castle of the Teutonic Knights, an hour or less south of Gdansk. “In medieval times, they made jewelry, beads for rosaries and covers of books from amber,” explains Malbork Castle guide Jagoda Dyl. “And there are stories of people believing amber cured headaches, earaches and stomachaches, and they would rub amber liquid into their joints.”
I also toured the amber factory at S&A Jewelry Design in the nearby port city of Gdynia, where workers sand and polish raw resins into glimmering smooth stones – some of the biggest jewels I’ve seen – often found in pendants running up to $50,000 USD or more. Amber thrills women shoppers, while men carry small pieces – often raw nuggets – for luck, according to company’s President of the Board Adam Pstragowski. “The ladies love amber – they’re beautiful light stones that bring positive energy,” he says. “My little stone has traveled with me around the world for 25 years.”
Dominika Bielicka-Sobieska of Millennium Gallery conducts a demonstration on how to test for the authenticity of amber.