Amber is unlike any other gemstone being the fossilised resin of one species of prehistoric pine tree, Pinus succinifera. So jewelry made with amber beads is uber antique - some 50 million years old. Amber has a long and rich mythological history as well as many uses. Roman mothers placed amber amulets around their children's necks for protection. Ground amber was even used as medicine to treat asthma.

The most famous and one of the oldest sources of amber is the Baltic region. Today's Baltic amber comes from mines but on wild, stormy nights in winter, the Baltic Sea still churns up nuggets upon its shores, for the Baltic Sea covers what was once an ancient forest.

Gathering amber in the old days was a miserable job on par with pearl diving. The dislodged amber nuggets, barely float and get tangled up with loosened seaweed. Rather than wait until the mess washed up on shore on someone else's stretch of beach, the men would wade into the water and fish using large nets. They worked in bitterly cold conditions and their leather and wool clothing soaked through and froze. They risked not just hypothermia but also drowning as the violent waves could sweep them away. They often worked leashed together like mountaineers.

Amber gatherers also fished from boats in calm waters using spears to loosen the amber nuggets from amongst rocks and nets to scoop the nuggets. Later on, the more costly dredging method was used.

The amber fishermen in the old days were little more than slaves, bonded to the Teutonic Knights, a German religious army. Their monopoly on amber which made them rich was founded in terror. They ruthlessly hanged any peasant caught stealing "their amber".

Picture : 17th century Amber Gatherers, North Prussia . From "Succini Prussica, Physica et Civilis Historia" by P.J. Hartmann, published in Frankfurt, Germany in 1677.

Rosa Hunger (1979). The Magic of Amber. N.A.G. Press Ltd.
Victoria Finlay (2006). Jewels: A Secret History. Ballantine Books.
Catherine Scott-Clark & Adrian Levy (2004). The Amber Room : The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treaure. Viking, Canada.