There are jewelry shops and stalls all over Vilnius, Lithuania, selling amber. Ruth was intrigued and visited several only to become increasingly wary and confused. At one stall, a man looking at the selection said about the amber, “This is plastic!” The stall operator was indignant. So we went to the Mazasis Gintaro Muziejus to learn about amber.
At this fine Amber Museum-Gallery, gracious Ernesta took us downstairs to the display area that includes a recently uncovered ancient kiln and taught us about this fascinating, naturally occurring gem.
When the earth was quite a bit warmer 50 million years ago, pine trees in the area produced too much resin that was swept down rivers toward the Baltic Sea. While most Baltic amber is the color of honey or butterscotch, a lot of vibrant orange is also seen. It comes in other colors too, and other trees beside pines around the world produced it. Amber has been found on all continents except Antarctica. Among the United States, it’s found in New Jersey, California, and Tennessee.
Amber has been a trade item since the Bronze Age. Romans doted on it and Baltic amber became known as the gold of the north.
Most of currently found Baltic amber, a complex mixture of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, comes from the Kaliningrad area. Ernesta showed us a map of Lithuania and pointed to a triangular, fresh-water lagoon, the Curonensis lacus (Curonian lagoon in English), that is this country’s major source of amber. Now I understood why that unusual natural phenomenon, a narrow strip of land holding back the Baltic Sea, is called the Amber Coast.
Amber has industrial uses–varnish, perfumes, medicines mostly of the homeopathic variety. When burned, Baltic amber gives off a pine fragrance. Because it can be ignited, in Germany the word for amber is Bernstein, Burnstone in English.
Although Baltic amber has a hardness of 2 to 2.5 on the Mohs’ scale, it’s somewhat fragile and requires care. It oxidizes in strong sunlight, for example, so exposure should be limited.
Ruth finally asked Ernesta if a lot of the amber seen for sale about town is not genuine, maybe even plastic, and Ernesta was diplomatic. She neither confirmed nor denied but told Ruth that real amber floats in water containing 10% salt. And when Ruth bought a small amber piece from her, she was given a “certificate of authenticity”. Be careful out there.
The Amber Museum in Vilnius is not only worthwhile, it’s a must-see.