It has travelled the world for three thousand years, as even the Ancient Greeks had a name for it – the “substance of the sun”. People have always loved it – no one cared that it is not a gem. The Romans were an example, regarding amber as valuable as gold. The historic Amber trade route connected the Baltics to Rome.
Latvians put it in their brooches, beads, textiles and song lyrics. They do occasionally call the Baltic Sea the Amber Sea. And they do not hesitate to name their brands or even children after it, either. Dzintars or Dzintra (meaning amber) are among the few given names of Latvian origin.
Amber is a pine tree resin fossilized through the ages. Vast pine forests have closed in on the half a thousand kilometres long Latvian sandy seaside. Amber fragments are still washed up along the Baltic Sea coast. The shiny specimens we see today have been around for 40 million years. Some amber contains plant and insect inclusions, such as ferns, frogs or dragonflies stuck in the pine resin back then.
The organic material comes in a variety of shades which characterize Latvia. Some amber is as yellow as a field of grain, a bouquet of flowers or a spread of butter. Another is the caramel color of bees and honey. At last, there is amber the red of seaside sunset or the rustic brown of homebrew beer.
You can see amber artefacts at the Latvian Nature Museum, the Latvian History Museum and the Latvian Institute of History (in Rīga), and the Liepāja Museum of Art and History. You may buy a wide variety of amber souvenirs, most notably in the Old Town of Rīga.
Where Is Amber Used?
Since ancient times, amber pendants, buttons and beads have been made, as well as more complex items. Amber has been widely used to make religious artefacts. Latvian scientists and entrepreneurs have thought of innovative application elsewhere. As an organic material, it absorbs the body heat and is easy to work with.
Equally ancient is the use of amber for medicinal purposes. The Baltic amber's unique healing properties may be connected with its content of succinic acid, which is an excellent biostimulant. Medicinal amber filaments and fashion items such as shawls made of amber textiles are just a few of the unique new applications for the “substance of the sun”.
Besides, amber is applied as a strategic material on nuclear submarines and in the engines of spacecraft. By-products include amber oil and amber varnish. These are used to make high quality paints and varnishes. Amber varnish is essential for restoring the gilded roofs of architectural monuments.
The optical properties of amber have been utilised ever since the Middle Ages, Spectacles were made from amber, and at the present day, several manufacturers of optical equipment use amber to improve the quality of lenses.
Amber, particularly pressed amber or amberoid, is used as an insulator in electrical equipment. Such amber cores were also used in the equipment that measured radiation levels after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. These facts just add up to the importance Latvians have always attributed to amber.
© The Latvian Institute 2015; Photos © Valts Kleins, Juris Kalniņš.