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The Economic History of Amber

Amber was one of the first items of long distance trade. It was light and of unique characteristics that made it worthwhile to transport it from the place where it was plentiful, the Baltic Sea area, to the places like the Mediterrean littoral where it was not. In some places such as the Samland of the southeastern Baltic amber washes up onto the beach in basketfull quantities. In ancient times the people of those areas were surprised that anyone would pay them for something that appeared to be available in limitless amounts. But to people outside of those areas amber was something of a beauty like no other substance. It could be used like a gem for decoration, but was light and warm unlike gem stones. Its other characteristics were also unusual. It could be set on fire and burned with the aroma of pine wood. At one stage in history the Germanic words for amber referred to this characteristic. It was called bernstein (burn stone).

The Greek,Thales of Miletus, discovered in about 600 B.C. that amber when rubbed with woolen cloth attracts small bits of things such as straw. The Arabic word for amber means literally straw robber. The Greek word for amber became the word for static electric phenomena. The English word amber, surprisingly derives from an Arabic word for whale anbar by way of late Latin and French. It is the same source as for ambergris (gray amber), another marine product found washed up on beaches.

The route for the amber trade was along the Vistula River through Germany to the Po River Valley in what is now north Italy. In the ancient world there was confusion about the source of the amber. The source was claimed to be along the Eridanus River which was identified with the Padua River, now is now called the Po River. Of course, in a sense the Po River being the terminus of the amber trade route was the source of the amber for the Mediterranean world. But the true source was well enough known that the Emperor Nero could send an emmissary to the Baltic to buy a large supply to be used in Imperial decorations.

The literature of the ancient world contains a number of fanciful speculations about the nature of amber. Sophocles claimed amber was the tears of a kind of bird in India that wept for the tragic death of the Greek Meleager, one of the Argonauts who was killed by his own mother. Another Greek, Demostatus, asserted that amber was the urine of lynxes. But even in ancient times there were some who correctly asserted that amber was some form of tree sap. Amber is so light that it just barely sinks in still seawater, turbulent water keeps amber from sinking until it is thrown up on a beach.

About this time it became known that in addition to being washed up on the seashore amber could be found buried deep in a particular stratum of soil known as blue loam. Blue loam is not truly blue; it is black or gray-black. This apparent mineral nature of amber led others completely off track who asserted that amber was a mineral like petroleum (rock oil) and that amber was just solidified petroleum.

The inclusions of insects and plant material in amber made it difficult to attribute its origin to any place other than a forest. In the 18th century naturalists concluded that the odd materials of coal, petroleum and amber were of organic, vegetative origin. In 1757 the great Russian scientist, Mikhail Lomonosov, publically proclaimed that amber could not be anything except the rosin of a tree.

In the first century A.D. the Roman writer, Tacitus, remarked that the people of the amber area were still puzzled over outsiders offering them anything at all for amber. He says, "in astonishment they accept the pay offered." By the 13th century much as changed with respect to amber. Most of Europe waa Christian by that time and amber was in demand for rosary beads. The Teutonic Knights came back from the Crusades and conquered a kingdom to the east of the Baltic. The Knights acquired the rich amber beaches and declared their monopoly over the collection of amber on the beaches of Samland. Their monopoly was brutely enforced. Anyone caught collecting on the beaches or in possession of amber was hanged immediately.

The Order of Teutonic Knights kept control of the amber trade in the southeast Baltic throughout the 1400's and into the 1500's. Records were kept and in 1551 one Andreas Aurifaber quaintly stated the figure for the average annual yield in the form of

One year brings more than another, but if one year helps the other the amount is 110 kegs.

Since the amber trade was based upon the demand for beads for rosaries, the Prostestant Reformation devastated the amber trade of the southeastern Baltic. The Lutherans did not use rosaries and the Catholics of southern and eastern Europe would not buy rosaries from the heretic Lutherans. The Order of Teutonic Knights transferred control of the amber trade to a family of merchants in Dantzig in 1533, the Koehn von Jaski's. This family found the amber trade could be resurrected by selling amber beads to Muslims in the Near East. It was during this period that Armenian traders became important in the amber trade.

In 1642 Frederick William, the Great Elector of Prussia, bought the rights to the amber trade from the Koehn von Jaski family. The Prussian government forbade individuals to collect amber on the beaches or even to walk along the beaches. Fishermen who of the necessity of their occupation had to be in areas where amber might be found had to swear an Amber Oath which committed them to inform the authorities of any amber smuggling they might witness.

Although the Prussian government had a monopoly in the amber trade it was not guaranteed a profit. It was expensive to maintain the system of control required to protect the monopoly. More often than not the Prussian government experienced losses instead of profits from its amber monopoly. In 1811 the Prussian government abandoned it losing monopoly and allowed private individuals, for a fee, to develop the collection and marketing of amber.

The natural harvest of amber was at times quite substantial. In a one morning after a storm in 1862 4400 pounds of amber were collected from the beaches near the town of Palmnicken. But relying upon storms to wash large amounts of amber onto the beaches was too risky. People learned to cast nets into the surf to catch the amber. They also learned to stir up the sediment in shallows and use nets to catch the amber pieces. But the harvest from even these methods were limited.

It had long been known that amber could be found buried deep in the Earth in a dark strata called blue loam. Some attempts at mining amber were tried, but the shafts and tunnels in the areas near the amber beaches were prone to collapse and this initial attempt at amber mining was not successful. Another form of amber recovery was discovered serendipitously.

The amber collected from the beaches was transported by ships to places such as Dantzig where it was processed into amber products. The channels for the ships would get filled with sand blown from the dunes and had to be dredged from time to time. The dredgers of course found amber in the dredgings. This operation expanded until amber collection was the primary objective of the dredging and clearing the shipping channel only a byproduct.

But the mining of amber was not impossible. In 1870 a private firm, Stantien & Becker, got a contract from the Prussian government that gave it exclusive privilege to mine for amber in return for a set fee per acre of land used for mining. During the period 1870 to 1874 Stantien & Becker mining about 10,000 pounds of amber a year. In 1875 Stantien & Becker put in a larger, deeper mine near Palmnicken that produced, in the first year, 450,000 pounds of amber. It duplicated this production level in the second year of operation and in the third achieved a production of 600,000 pounds. The harvesting from beaches only amounted to ten to twelve thousand pounds per year. By 1885 Stantien & Becker's production reached a level of 900,000 pounds per year. It fell back but ranged from 600,000 to 850,000 pounds per year until 1895 when production went to 1.2 million pounds per year mark. Seeing the extraordinary success of Stantien & Becker's operations the Prussian government once again took control of the amber trade and created the Royal Amber Works of Königsberg. This government agency was able to maintain annual production levels of a million pounds or more until 1915 when, because of World War I, production fell to 200,000 pounds. After the war production returned to high levels and in 1925 a production of 1.25 million pounds was achieved. But by 1930 the production fell to 75,000 pounds and in 1931 dropped to zero. It recovered thereafter but only to the 200,000 pounds per year level.

In addition to the high levels of production in the period 1875 to 1925 there were discoveries made which enhanced the value of the output. Some amber is clear and some opaque. The opaqueness comes from tiny bubbles in the amber. It was found that if opaque amber is boiled in an oil the oil seeps into the bubbles filling them and making the amber clear. Clear amber was more valuable than opaque amber. Larger pieces of amber are more valuable than an equal weight of smaller pieces. Smaller pieces cannot simply be melted together because amber does not truly melt. At about 700°F it decomposes before it reaches a melting point. But in 1880 it was discovered that if amber is heated under high pressure at a temperature of about 300°F the smaller pieces will coalesce. Thus the rise in amber production from 12,000 pounds per year prior to 1870 to 1,200,000 pounds per year in 1895 involved an economic impact of greater than the hundredfold increase in the weight of production.

During the development of the amber industry the mysteries of its source were uncovered. Amber is the rosin of an ancient, now extinct pine tree, growing in northeastern Europe under semitropical conditions. This pine exuded sap when it was injured. The sap globules fell to the earth where they were washed down stream. Over the eons these rosin chunks with their inclusions of plant and insect material dessicated and hardened. They collected in the same places the dark soil, now known as blue loam, collected. The deposits of blue loam were later eroded and the amber freed to be washed away a second time, this time upon the beaches. Each stage may have taken millions of years. The times involved were so long that some of the areas of blue loam deposits became covered with seas. The glaciers of ancient ice ages drove the pine forest south but it could not retreat far enough south to survive because the Alps and their glaciers posed a barrier. Caught between the glaciers of the north and the glaciers of the Alps the amber pine became extinct.


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