Amber: Europe’s chief native gem

Constantinople, standing at the crossroads of continents, always had access to imported gemstones. But Northern Europe depended mainly (and for a long time) on its native gems. Chief among them: amber, traded since the Stone Age.

Amber was cut, polished and drilled into pendants and beads. Chips of amber were set into gold brooches, with colored glass and other gemstones. Amber could be the gemstone in a ring or on earrings. Like other medieval gemstones, it was never cut into facets as we do now. It was round and polished, prized mainly for its bright color.

Baltic amber is honey-colored and translucent. When it’s heated (or drilled with a hot needle to create a bead), it gives off a distinct smell of pine resin. It really is fossilized pine resin, occasionally containing some insects or bits of other plants. Amber is found around the world, and its color worldwide can vary from gold to brown, red and black and even, more rarely, green and blue.

The largest known deposit of amber is in the area now called Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. In the past, this area was known as Prussia, and before that, it had other names. The region remained pagan, outside the civilized network of Europe, until late in the Middle Ages. It was never an impoverished, starving outback, though, because since Stone Age times, its people could always depend on a market for their yellow stones.

Lithuanians call it “gintaras,” and Russians say, similarly, “yintar.” Something like “yintar” is probably what the early medieval miners and traders called it, perhaps as far back as the Bronze Age. But as the honey-colored gem traveled farther away, it developed some other significant names.

Pliny reports that the Roman-era Germanic tribes called it something like “glass.” Anglo-Saxons called it “glaer.” The word probably meant “resin” (as did “yintar”). We no longer refer to amber this way, but translucent resin appears to be the origin of our word for glass.

Modern English’s word “amber” was adopted in the Middle Ages and apparently it meant something like “beach glass.” Amber (from Arabic anbar, referring to perfume) was one of two valuable substances that could be picked up on the beach. Amber gris (grey amber) came from sperm whales and was used in perfume; amber jaune (yellow amber) is the fossilized pine gem but could also be used for perfume making. They may have been considered different colors of the same substance; they were certainly both collected to sell to perfumers in the city. Only later did “amber” come to mean only the gemstone.

In Classical times, amber was traded as far away as Greece (and probably much farther). In Greek, it was called “elektron,” relating its color to the sun. The myth of Phaeton, who foolishly drove the sun’s chariot, included the detail that his grieving sisters turned to trees and these golden drops were their tears. Persians called the gem kahruba, and this word was borrowed into Arabic (anbar had been about perfume, not gems). In Arabic, kahrabah came to mean electricity; of course, we easily recognize the same meaning in the Greek name.

Amber’s molecular structure allows it to pick up a static electric charge easily. Since furs were the other main export from the Baltic forests of Prussia, traders would have realized very early that rubbing amber on fur creates a crackling, flickering charge. Amber was used in early experiments with creating electrical charges. This is why the name of amber in Greek and Arabic became the basis for talking about electrical charges. Later experiments used glass and silk, but now we see that “glass,” too, has some indirect reference to amber.



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