Treasures from the Baltic Sea: Russian amber in the Kaliningrad Oblast
by Olivia Kroth
In these trying times of sanctions, the Baltic Sea is probably best known for its Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport Russian gas from Russia to Europe. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is set to run from the Russian coast along the Baltic Sea bed to the German shore and will be completed at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021, in spite of sanctions. “Chief Executive Officer of Gazprom Aleksei Miller said that the construction would be completed by its own efforts. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak explained that the construction of the gas pipeline may be finalized using the ship-laying vessel ‘Akademik Chersky’. The project is 93% completed to date” (TASS, 06.06.2020). Russian gas is a very useful utility for European countries. However, the Baltic Sea has a lot more to offer, for example an abundance of beautiful beaches, loved by tourists. Furthermore, the Baltic Sea is a resource for fish and amber, which can be found along the Russian shore around Kaliningrad. Amber is mined in Yantarny, Kaliningrad Oblast, and exported worldwide. Russia has a long tradition of carving amber, from the exquisite Amber Room in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo to Russian jewelry, antique and modern. Russia’s amber culture is unique in the world. The Kaliningrad Amber Museum exhibits Russian amber artwork and sells books about amber in Russian and English.
The Baltic Sea regulalry washes up pieces of amber to its shores, where people like to collect it. The ancient Baltic tribes loved to tell folklore about amber. One of their legends explains why amber can be found in the Baltic Sea.
The legend of two suns
Once upon a time, not one, but two suns walked through the sky. One of them was slim and light, the other was huge and heavy. The sky could not hold the heavy sun any more, so the luminary fell into the Baltic Sea. Hitting sharp rocks at the bottom, it broke into millions of small pieces. Since then, waves have been rising from the bottom of the sea, throwing large and small pieces of sun stone ashore.
Russian amber is mined industrially near Yantarny (Янтарный), 40 kilometres from Kaliningrad. This village with 5.550 inhabitants is the administrative centre of the Amber District. Here the Kaliningrad Amber Plant (Калининградский янтарный комбинат) processes amber. Various small private companies are also involved in amber processing.
The amber plant was founded in July 1947, during Soviet times. Already in 1948, 115 tons of amber were mined. In addition, a mechanical repair facility and an amber resin factory were commissioned. In the 1970s, about 350 tons of amber were mined annually, which accounted for 65 percent of global amber production.
Nowadays, the amber production is going very well. “Sales of the Kaliningrad Amber Plant (controlled by Rostec state corporation), which is the world’s biggest enterprise involved in industrial amber mining, are planned at 450 tonnes for 2020,” Director General Mikhail Zatsepin said. “In 2019, the plant sold 467.9 tonnes of amber, worth 3.03 billion rubles ($44 million), an increase of 21 percent, compared with 2018. Sixty percent of the amber produced by the plant are purchased by Russian buyers, 40 percent by large foreign companies. Negotiations are underway on amber sales to Asian-Pacific and Middle Eastern countries” (TASS, 05.06.2020).
Amber is fossilized tree resin, appreciated for its colour and natural beauty since Neolithic times. Amber has been found on the Southern coast of the Baltic Sea for thousands of years. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) mentions in his work “Natural History” the established trade route for amber, connecting the Baltic with the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Amber Road. Because it originates as a soft, sticky tree resin, amber sometimes contains animal and plant material as inclusions. Much valued from antiquity to the present as a gemstone, amber is made into a variety of decorative objects.
Amber plant inclusion:
Because amber is such a fascinating material, many legends and myths about amber have emerged since the dawn of civilization. Ancient peoples endowed amber with supernatural qualities and used it in their magic rites. Amber amulets were worn as protection from diseases and against being killed in a battle. Russia’s most ancient forefathers believed that amber could heal the body and attract good luck. Amber adornments were supposed to avert misfortune, guard against the evil eye and bring happiness in love.
Even today, alternative healers attribute positive qualities to amber. They say that it helps you to concentrate and enhances your self-reliance. They are sure that constant wearing of amber adornments will better the condition of those having problems with the thyroid gland. Furthermore, amber is said to relieve the pain of joints inflammation and calcification.
Vintage Russian amber necklace for good luck:
However, there are also sad stories and legends about amber, as the drop form of amber resembles tears. Probably all scholars of Ancient Greek and Latin have read Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and know about Phaeton’s life and death. Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC–17/18 AD) was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Emperor Augustus.
The “Metamorphoses”, his Book of Transformations, is a long Latin narrative poem, comprising 11.995 lines in 15 volumes with over 250 myths. The “Metamorphoses” chronicle the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. One of Ovid’s famous myths tells us the story of young Phaeton, who was the son of Helios, the ancient Greek Sun God. Phaeton wanted to ride his father’s sun chariot. Helios warned his son that this was not at all a good idea, as he would not be able to control the horses.
Phaeton in the sun chariot:
Phaeton insisted. He climbed into the sun chariot and sped away. Soon Phaeton noticed that the chariot was going off-course. He tried to control it but he was too weak and inexperienced. First the chariot went high up into the sky, then the horses raced towards the earth. The scorching sun chariot burned large parts of the earth, this is how the deserts appeared on the globe.
The Gods knew that they had to stop Phaeton from destroying the earth. Finally, Zeus struck the boy in the chariot with a thunderbolt. Phaeton’s burnt body fell into the waters of the river Eridanos. The chariot broke into pieces. Phaeton’s sisters, the Heliades, gathered on the banks of the river and mourned for days. Then they turned into poplar trees, while their tears were transformed into amber droplets. This is the reason, why so many pieces of amber have the shape of tear drops.
The Russian Tsars valued amber for its unique beauty. There was an Amber Room in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg. It was a chamber decorated with amber panels, gemstones, gold leaf, mirrors, statues of angels and children, all highlighted with candle light. The Amber Room was a priceless piece of art, with extraordinary architectural features. Because of its singular beauty, the Amber Room was sometimes called the Eighth Wonder of the World.
During World War II, Nazi invaders looted the Amber Room. A reconstruction was installed in the Catherine Palace, between 1979 and 2003. After decades of work by Russian craftsmen, the new room was finally inaugurated, in 2003. The famous Amber Room covers more than 55 square metres and contains over 6 tonnes of amber. It is a highlight for visitors and tourists to Tsarskoye Selo.
Amber Room in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoe Selo:
In Kaliningrad, the Amber Museum is worth a visit. It was inaugurated in 1979, to become Russia’s first and only Amber Museum. Located in the city centre on the shore of Verkhneye Lake, it is housed in a fortress tower dating from the nineteenth century. The tower was built in 1853 in the Neo-Gothic style as part of the city defence system.
In this fortress, the Amber Museum occupies three floors with a total space of 1.000 square metres. One section is devoted to science – natural history and geology – another to culture. The scientific part of the exposition shows amber samples of different weight, colour and clarity. The biggest sun stone in Russia weighs 4.28 kg.
Amber Museum in Kaliningrad:
The section of culture contains amber adornments and household items from the Neolithic age (4000 – 2000 BC) until today. Lost amber items of the 16th century were reconstructed by Kaliningrad masters and specialists of the restoration workshop in Tsarskoye Selo. Unique works of amber art by masters of the 17th century were donated to the Museum by the Armoury of the Moscow Kremlin, in 1978. They were completed by 19th and 20th centuries pieces, made by Russian and European masters.
Today, the Amber Museum is one of the most interesting cultural places in Kaliningrad. Its collection consists of more than 16.000 items. Every year, the Amber Museum is visited by 200.000 guests; 1.200 excursions and more than 30 exhibitions are organized. One of the most important activities is the International Biennial of Amber Art Works «Alatyr» (the old Russian name for amber), since 2004. Another interesting venue is the All-Russian Jewelry Art Contest, since 2012.
Furthermore, the Kaliningrad Amber Museum is actively engaged in publishing: 40 books have been published, during the last eleven years. All of these books are available in Russian and English. The Amber Museum houses a library and communication centre. It provides excursions, events for parents and children, museum classes for pupils, lectures, work-shops and meetings with artists. There is also a souvenir shop on the ground floor, where beautiful amber items made by Kaliningrad masters can be bought.
This amber portrait of Tsar Peter the Great is exhibited in the Kaliningrad Amber Museum:
In the past decades, amber pieces were regarded as grandma’s jewelry by young Russian girls. However, the ancient art of making jewelry has been modernized by inventive, contemporary artirts. An interesting article tells us about the “Amber Revolution: five jewelry designers are reinventing the stone” (RUSSIA BEYOND THE HEADLINES, 04.01.2016).
Journalist Nadezhda Ustinova writes: “An association called Russian Amber is uniting young Russian designers, artists and photographers, who work with amber. Their goal is to return the stone to its former popularity and prove that amber can be made into real works of art. These creative people have chosen to work with the sun stone.”
Nadezhda Ustinova continues to explain: “One of the enterprises is called Mineral Weather. The duo of Alexander Olkhovsky and Anna Pavlova likes to combine natural minerals, aged things and animalistic stories, trying to keep the stone as natural as possible and not changing its natural form. When creating jewelry, the designers are inspired by items from flea markets, sometimes incorporating historical elements into their works.”
Jewelry designer Anna Pavlova, founder of the enterprise Mineral Weather:
“Trying to convey the natural beauty of amber, Mineral Weather combines different shades of stone – from light honey to dark brown, complementing it with other minerals. The designers themselves especially like the combination of amber and natural amethyst. They sell their hand-crafted pieces in their showrooms of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. They also exhibited them at the BIJORHCA PARIS show in France, in 2014.”
The article in RUSSIA BEYOND THE HEADLINES presents another young duo of amber designers: “Alexandra Petrova, a sculptor and ceramist, and Nikifor Ignatenko, a designer and cabinet maker. They call their enterprise Kao Lin. Together, they create personal ornaments using relatively unconventional jewelry, using materials such as porcelain and fine wood (sessile oak or juniper).
After finding out that the world’s largest reserves of amber were in Russia’s Kaliningrad Region, the Kao Lin designers began to actively use it in their work. In their jewelry, they skillfully and delicately combine the sun stone with white glass and wood. The jewelers believe that since amber came out of wood – it must return to it.”
Jewelry designer Nikifor Ignatenko of Kao Lin with one of his creations:
Last but not least, there is Liza Zhitskaya, who originally studied to be a shoe and accessories designer. Later she went to a silver jewelry-making class. “Once there was a desire to make jewelry, the process carried me away quickly, so there was no way back,” she said. She is not afraid to combine amber with stones of different colours, such as pink and green tourmaline, for the “stone to shine in a new way.”
Her works combine both rough uncut and polished stones. According to Liza Zhitskaya, thanks to cooperation with Russian Amber, she discovered that pieces of amber are not only “grandmother’s beads” but can be used to do something completely new and modern.
Kaliningrad is the amber capital of the world, according to National Geographic:
Visitors to the region of Kaliningrad may gather their own individual amber pieces on the shores of the Baltic Sea or buy an amber item in the many shops of Kaliningrad, Saint Petersburg, even in Moscow. Amber items – whether vintage or modern – are wonderful souvenirs to bring home from Russia.
When you play chess with amber figures, you will have a good chance of winning, since amber is said to help people with clever moves. Even if you do not win, you will be happy and content. Let the sunshine in by holding the figurines against the sunlight. They will sparkle and shine, to make your day sunny and bright.
Amber chess figures:
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia.