In the north of Germany, along the shores of the Baltic and North seas, it is still possible to find amber—particularly after high seas or a storm. While I was on Rügen, the seas remained low and there were no storms to speak of… We found a nudist colony and were almost fined ten thousand Euros for sitting on the wrong patch of sand, but we found no amber on the beach, though there was plenty in the numerous souvenir stores.
Hunting for amber on the seashore is not without its perils, however. Recently, a sixty-seven year old man was walking along the Baltic coast when he came upon something he thought was amber, and popped it in his pocket. Unfortunately for him, another thing that washes up on these shores regularly is white phosphorus (which was used in explosives during the Second World War) and it can quite often resemble amber in its natural state. A few moments later, the phosphorus in his pocket ignited and set his pants on fire. A local fisherman noticed and helped relieve the man of his pants, but he still suffered serious burns. For this reason, the German government regularly warns against picking up anything from the beach that you are unsure of.
So, what is amber? Well, even though the German word has ‘stein’ (stone) in it, amber can be considered biological as well as mineral; it comes from fossilised tree resin. It has some strange qualities, such as how it crackles when put in fire, and how it can be made to melt in a vacuum, and how some types of amber can float in saltwater. It has been a valuable decorative and mythic resource as far back as recorded history goes in this region of Germany. The barbarian tribes used it for status and for trade with the Romans. But, as we all know from Jurassic Park, amber has been around for much longer than that. Baltic amber became abundant due to a period of climate change around 45 to 50 million years ago, warming up the region and thus increasing the production of resin in the native trees.
Perhaps the greatest example of the use of amber is the famous Amber Room, a magnificently constructed series of panels of amber originally constructed in 1701 for the Prussian King Frederick the First, and installed in Charlottenburg Palace. When Peter the Great expressed his admiration for the room, he was given it as a gift in 1716 as part of an alliance with Russia against Sweden at the time. It was moved several times and renovated with more amber and gold and precious stones, so that at one point it was estimated to be worth around 142 million dollars in today’s money. The Nazis reclaimed it for Germany from the Russians during the Second World War and sent it to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). In the final months of the war, it was either destroyed in the many bombing raids, or packed away again and hidden … though nobody knows for sure. There are many conspiracy theories related to it now, and even a curse is said to be upon it.
While the Amber Room remains missing, Kaliningrad has an amber museum with many rare examples from the Baltic shores, including some magnificent sculptures of such varied things as crocodiles, crucifixes and complex farming scenes. It’s also a good place see what amber looks like in its natural state, before it has been polished or refined into an elaborate object, just in case you might want to pick some up and pop it in your pocket…