Monday, March 19, 2012

Amber and the priceless Amber Room

What is Amber?

Specifically Amber is a hard gemstone made of fossilized tree resin that was at one time sticky, so it can often include encased plants, insects and animals from as early as 320 million years ago.

(scorpion encased in amber)

According to Greek Mythology, Phaeton was the son of Helios and Klymene. "Every day he watched his father driving his chariot across the heavens, and every day he begged to have a go. One day he had his chance. His seven sisters helped to harness the horses and he set out with all the confidence of a pampered teenager." -Finlay

"However, the inexperienced Phaethon quickly lost control of the immortal steeds, and the sun-chariot veered out of control setting the earth aflame, scorching the plains of Africa to desert." -image and quote from theoi

"Zeus, the king of gods, sent a thunderbolt to kill the boy and stop the damage. Phaeton's body came to earth beside a north flowing river, which the barbarian tribes called Eridanus. As punishment for helping him, his sisters were turned into black poplars. As they wept over the fate of their beautiful, arrogant brother, their tears fell into the river and became amber." -Finlay

image and Finlay quotes from Jewels: A Secret History

The theories of what exactly made ancient trees leek their resin in order to create amber range from early global warming to fires to the trees leaking their resin as a defense mechanism. Experts aren't sure exactly what kind of trees or why the trees leaked their resin, just that the resin did leak from the trees, and a lot of it! And the oozing pools of sticky resin collected it's now famous bugs, plants, lizards and scorpions with it on its way to fossilization.

What is also known is that the densest population of these trees were in the Baltic areas of Poland, Denmark, Russia, Sweden, Lithuania, Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Germany.

Amber is lighter than seawater and is commonly collected by fishing it out of the water after a big storm. Thousands of years ago, amber was plentiful and many people fished the Baltic sea line to obtain many large pieces of high quality amber. Today only a small percentage of amber is of good enough quality to put into jewelry. What can not be made into jewelry is commonly burned, since amber releases a fragrant smell once burned that some believe to be holistic. The word amber in German bernstein means "burning stone," and is the same word in Polish bursztyn. - Finlay

Since there is so much amber that cannot be turned into jewelry because of its quality, it is not uncommon for amber to be heated and shaped into figurines and attempted to be sold in that capacity instead of jewelry. Of course, one of the greatest amber treasures was an entire room of sculpted amber that retains a unique history of its own.

The Amber Room, or Amber Chamber as it is sometimes called, is an entire room of sculpted amber mosaic panels backed with gold leaf, in the Catharine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg, Russia. The room was originally designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schluter and crafted by the Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram from 1701-1709 in Berlin. In 1716 the entire room was given as a diplomatic gift by Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia to his then ally Tsar Peter the Great of the Russian Empire cementing the Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.

In 1755, Catherine the Great commissioned a new generation of craftsmen to upgrade the room and move it to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. After its 18th century renovations the room covered over 55 square meters or about 180 square feet and contained more than 6 tons of amber and other semi-precious stones backed with gold leaf. At that time, the room is said to have been worth about $142 million of today's dollars.

The palace existed as a opulent symbol of friendship between the Russians and Germans until June of 1941 when Hitler began the invasion the Soviet Union. Knowing that Hitler was looting art treasures for himself, the curators of the Catherine Palace attempted to disassemble the Amber Room, but it began to break, so, fearful that they would ruin a national treasure, they wall-papered the room attempting to hide it. Since the room was made by a German, Hitler believed the room to belong to the Germans and was specifically looking for it, so it did not take long for his soldiers to find it, break it down and ship it back to Konigsberg, Germany in 27 crates where it was installed in the Konigberg Castle Museum along the Baltic coast.

By 1944, Konigsberg was at the center of allied attacks on Germany and was repeatedly bombed. The castle of Konigsberg was destroyed and with it, the legend of the Amber Room began.

Konigsberg Castle 1895 (before WWII bombings)

Konigsberg Castle 1950's (post WWII bombing)

The mysterious crates containing the Amber Room panels were never found. It is widely believed that the Amber Room panels were destroyed since they have never been found. Theories about their history and existence range from destruction due to bombing to still existing in one of Hitler's many secret bunkers to being sunk at sea while being attempted to be shipped somewhere else.

In 1997, a group of art detectives got a clue that someone was trying to sell a panel from the Amber Room but when they apprehended him they found that he was the son of a dead soldier and had no information about the panel's origin.

One of the most extreme theories is that Stalin actually had a second Amber Room and the Germans had stole a fake.

One thing is for sure is that the Amber Room is an incredibly important part of Baltic History and was at one time considered to be the eighth wonder of the world.

Despite the Amber Room's disappearance, the Russian Government decided it was too important to leave just a historic theft and began reconstruction of the room in 1979.

Twenty-five years and $11 million dollars later, the newly constructed Amber Room stands in Tsarskoye Selo. Completed in 2003, just in time for the 300 year anniversary of St. Petersberg, the new Amber Room was dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder at a unifying ceremony intended to refer to the peaceful sentiment of the original gift.

The newly constructed room stands and is open to the public at Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve just outside of St. Petersberg, Russia. If I ever make it that way, this incredible piece of history will definitely be on my list of things to do. For ticket information and best times to view the Amber Room, check out the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve's website here.

Also, here's a quick little video about the history of the room, if you are more into pictures and videos, than reading a bunch of text. Such a cool history! Love that places like this exist all over.

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