What to Buy in Poland: Shopping for Amber in Gdańsk

Amber Jewelry store in Gdansk (Photo by MCArnott)

The necklace seen on the store attendant is made of pressed or reconstructed amber: Natural amber beads are seldom larger than 12 mm (Photo by MCArnott)

Shopping wasn’t on my mind (really!) when our tour headed for Gdańsk. We were going to the Solidarity exhibition at the shipyards (where workers organized the revolt that crushed Communism in Europe). Besides, my view of northern Poland was darkened by the typical climate, and the dramatic changes endured by this nation.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Amber has been used as an ingredient in perfumes, as a healing agent in folk medicine, and as jewelry.
  • The Baltic is the epicenter of European amber, which was used as a trade item and for jewelry of the nobility and royalty.
  • Good for: Lovers of fine jewellery with an ancient history.

Later that day, I left Gdańsk with visions of the sunny hues of amber jewelry and the sparkling gold flakes of Goldwasser Vodka. I had seen amber jewelry–to the point of saturation–in all the cities visited during our Baltic Sea cruise, but once I passed the Green Gate to the shops of Gdańsk’s Old Town, I knew that amber was what I would bring back from Poland. After all, Gdańsk has been the European center for amber artistry since the 10th century, and is the world capital today.

 First: The Case about Amber

Cognac color amber jewelry set

Cognac amber jewelry-set from a store in Latvia (Photo by MCArnott)

Is amber a gemstone, a resin, or a fossil? Some believe it’s plastic, yet I am not referring to the cheap stuff made in China. The International Gem Society states: “Amber is not really a fossil resin, but a natural plastic resulting from the polymerization of ancient resin.” Not everyone agrees: For the Virtual Fossil Museum, it’s “a fossilized resin of botanical origin” and its scientific terminology should be fossil resin.” The Smithsonian Institute has its own take on it: “Forgers have been pouring amber-like goo over flies, lizards and other ‘biological inclusions’ for at least 600 years.”

You got it: Amber is both a matter of controversy and passion. It’s also a complex subject that will keep you challenged as you shop.

Archeological chemistry can determine (within some 50 million years) the age and origin of amber. Shape reveals if the resin was still in the tree, or had been dislodged from where it was formed. As for Baltic amber (from the ancient forests of the Baltic) it’s the only amber that contains succinite acid (claimed to relieve inflammatory pain).

Milky amber pendant and drop earrings set (Photo by MCArnott)

Most of the amber in Poland is mined 30 meters (99 feet) underground, in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (the former capital of Prussia). Deposits began to form when storms caused amber to get loose and wash ashore. Because trees and resin float, they were carried to still waters and eventually buried by sediments. Market supply was secured for hundreds of years until the mine flooded, in 2004: Amber extraction plummeted by nearly 90%. Then, Russia further reduced its extraction: Amber price has doubled every year ever since. Illegal extraction and smuggling, and an increasing demand from China, have impacted the “Baltic Gold” market place. Due to supply limitations, and to maximize inventory, jewelers now tend to create piece with more silver and less amber.

 

 

Facts About Buying Baltic Amber

Heat

Demonstration at a street market in Latvia: When heated amber should release an aromatic scent (Photo by MCArnott)

While tricks of the trade to detect fakes can even fail experts, the best place to buy amber is still at the jewelry stores on Gdańsk Long Market pedestrian street (where you are likely to browse). The prices are as affordable as those of the street merchants: pendants or earrings from $30.

Ah, but at street markets you might find an amazing piece with a fascinating insect inclusion at a fabulous price… Too bad that it’s plastic! Even so, as a cheap trinket souvenir, a fake piece will thrill anyone with the curiosity of a child.

Natural amber comes in many shades of honey, red, green, and milky butterscotch. According to the Swedish Museum, “white amber is the only true amber.” The reason is that once dislodged the clarity is affected by the elements (oxygen). In any case, the price of a jewelry piece also depends on the amount of silver used for the setting.

Amber floats in salted water (so does plastic!)

Amber floats in salted water: So does plastic (Photo by MCArnott)

Manipulated amber can be:

Fused amber: Real amber pieces pressed together with heat to create a larger piece.

Pressed amber: A composite of amber pebbles and waste.

Darkened amber: Heat further creates a star-spangled effect.

Manual inclusions: Insect inserted in manipulated amber and gap filled with amber powder.

Copal: Less than one million years old it is often sold as amber, yet it is chemically too young. It should be disclosed as copal.

When shopping for amber, try not to buy on an impulse! Take the time to listen to vendors (especially in jewelry stores who show how to work amber, they won’t sell fakes). Note that fused and pressed amber is still  amber, but not a genuine single piece.

 

Practicalities

  • Ask for a certificate of authenticity. Manipulated amber should be disclosed on the certificate.
  • Care for amber: Soap, perfume and acid will affect the shine. Simply wipe with a clean cloth.
  • Poland’s currency is the zloty (PLN) –1.00 USD = 3.60 PLN.
  • Some stores offer a 10% discount for cash payment.
  • Staff spoke English in the jewelry stores I visited in Gdańsk.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Patti young says

    A few years back, my husband and i were in the Baltic sea region on a cruise as far as St Petersburg. I obtained some lovely pieces and in St. Petersburg found a necklace of amber flowers. I was told that the craftsmen who worked on the amber room in Catherine’s palace were now doing jewelry and small scenic amber pictures. I treasure my find and enjoy it each time I wear it.

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