We can only guess when people started using amber as jewellery or amulet raw material giving it magical meaning. It is known that it was treated with flint knives, cutters, scrapers, burr grinding stone and sand. The oldest known amber article was created at the end of the Old Stone Age (8 chiliad BC). It was an amber plate found in reindeer hunting camp near Hamburg. Ancient amber is rich in examples of art in many European museums. They possess amber of each period of the history beginning with the Neolithic and ending today, ornaments and other articles show a great popularity of amber and its wide usage in applied decorative arts.
The earliest amber articles in Lithuanian coastal area (Šventoji, Juodkrantė, Nida, Pervalka Klaipėda) were detected from the Neolithic period (4-2 chiliad BC). The articles were of various forms like pendants with a hole at one end, tubular and other beads, different shapes of buttons with a V-shaped hole, fancy wheels, string distributions, and units with large holes, human and animal figurines, which supposedly served as amulets. Crafts’ surface was decorated with dots, dashes that separated the article into segments reflecting concept of the world. In Middle Neolithic period amber had been exchanged for other goods with the Eastern European population. In Bronze and early Iron Age less amber was found. In the first century AD, large quantities of this mineral had been transported to the Roman Empire, where amber workshops were held.
During prosperity of the Roman Republic masters created amber sculptures, portraits of human heads that do not differ from that time traditional marble and terracotta statues in their artistic expression. Imperial period masters used amber material for sculptures a more soft and brave approach. At that time, amber rings with sculptural virtuosity made women’s heads, grass and psycheas’ motives were very popular. Also, there were amber rings without decorations found. Small amber-Amphorae and cans, spoons, combs, lamp-Lecithin and other articles complement the assortment of amber articles. However, their immediate use for their fragility is questionable.
In Lithuania plentiful of amber is found in burial places dating back to the 5th-12th centuries. Significant amounts of it evidence this mineral being popular among our ancestors and used for therapy, magic and embellishing. The yellow stone was combined with glass and enamel beads, it decorated brass spirals; used to make beads, circles, which were placed under women’s veils, ceremonial articles (miniature combs, weaving tools) and utensils. In the 14th century amber processing shops started to be founded in German, Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian cities. During the 13th-14th centuries the wars with the Crusaders slowed down the production of amber articles. In the 14th century, in addition to local handmade amber crafts imported amber dominated: decorated furniture, mirrors, boxes, dishes, religious wares (crosses, rosaries, Crucifixes, small altars).
In the early Middle Ages amber was used only for utilitarian religious purposes: making beads, crosses and other things. Princes and nobles’ eagererness to acquire more artistically valuable articles had great importance for artistic amber treatment. Artistic amber processing prospered particularly during the 17th century and in the beginning of the 18th century. During this period, professionals already grasped the secrets of amber grinding, choping, carving, polishing, and colour change. Churches and mansions of the nobles were decorated with amber objects; they became one of the most popular gifts in diplomatic missions. Most famous amber pieces were made in Danzig workshop. Those were King’s of Poland Jan III Sobieski’s crown, which was carved of a solid piece of amber, a naval ship model and other articles donated to King Władysław IV; amber goblet of Moscow Chamber of weapons is listed in the inventory. In 1648 the envoy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Stanislav Vienevski presented the goblet to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. It is believed that it was also made of a solid piece of amber. At that time round sculptural and relief amber plastic thrived: chamber sculptures with mythological theme, figurines of saints, medallions with relief portraits of feudal lords. Mosaic of amber was developed in the 18th century. The largest monument of this type of mosaic is the famed Amber Room. The Amber Room wall mosaic was a result of traditions to encrust furniture with amber. Such encrusting was already flourishing in the 17th century. Cabinets, secretaries, home altar wooden planes were skilfully decorated with mosaics of amber. Rich feudal lords’ chambers were adorned with mirrors framed with amber traceries. High artistic and technical excellence was achieved by guild masters decorating wooden toiletries and jewellery boxes with amber. In the 17th and 18th centuries goldsmiths loved to diversify elaborate silver and gold forged dishes, mugs, and trays with polished amber encrustations. Amber embellishment motives were successfully aligned in metal torcheres: candlesticks, candelabras, and chandeliers. Specific impressiveness is beared not only by amber itself, but also bottles, compacts, tobacco-boxes, boxes sculpturally decorated with separate pieces of amber.
In Capitalist era, a move to amber-processing machines substantially narrowed the range of use of noble materials in applied art. It was used mainly for women’s adorments, souvenires, thus, once again the use of amber returned to prehistoric times traditional functionality.
Before World War I Palanga’s masters processed around 20 000 kilograms of raw amber per year, and this industry employed about 300-500 workers and many individual craftsmen. They manually produced a variety of jewellery, cigarette holders, boxes, crosses, rosaries. Palanga’s amber products had strong demand in international market and successfully competed with the Germans’. Annually Palanga’s amber products were transported to the Odessa Fair, which usually lasted for three months. There used to go merchants from all over the world.
During World War I Palanga’s amber processing workshop was destroyed, a part of known masters moved to Germany (Konigsberg) amber shops. Industry of Lithuanian amber processing was hindered by the lack of raw amber and dependence on Germany. Running amber monopoly, Germany regulated sale of raw materials for its own interests. Therefore, pre-war Lithuanian amber industry was poorly developed and could not compete with German amber treatment predominance in the global marketplace.
During the interwar period there were different items made in amber workshops: jewellery (brooches, necklaces, bracelets), cufflinks, cigarette-holders, pens, inkpots, metal jewellery with amber inlay, wooden boxes, furniture and other products. Jewellery mainly had classical and chaste shape: different length necklaces, polished amber brooches, and polished plate bracelets. In 1937 and 1939 amber products together with other folk art works were exhibited at world exhibitions in Paris and New York, and at International Crafts Exhibition in Berlin, 1938. The largest part of exports consisted of amber of different types of beads, cigarette-holders, brooches and cuff links. There had been necklaces exported to African and Asian countries, and other articles to Finland, Sweden, Holland and France.
In Lithuania amber processing development was stopped by the Second World War, but in the 5-6th decade amber again started playing an important role among other Fine Crafts. There were up to 60 kinds of products designed: mostly grinded and polished beads and various naturalistic animal and plant form souvenires. Amber was polished as a jewel in square shapes, while pieces with interesting texture or inclusions at the time were considered as not complying with standards.
Since 1957 Lithuanian new amber treatments entrenched, and a new specification was introduced. That allowed to highlight properties of amber and to use an improved technology. Previously, when beads were grinded, the waste contained up to 70% of all materials used, and now the waste was significantly reduced. The sculptor and designer Feliksas Daukantas first spoke of natural properties of amber – translucency, changing shades, multi-layering, and had worked hard to exalt the Baltic gold value. Fighting stereotypes he started negative carving on amber, and even carved a piece of scenery on the other side of it. This creative phase, contrary to the preservation of naturalness propagated by the artist, led him to a piece of amber as the unique work of art. The artist applied a specific method of grinding: every piece of amber processed saving its natural form: streamlined oval, drop, circle, keeping unpolished places, holes, opaque surface patches.
The further development of amber jewellery was influenced by Kazimieras Simanonis’, graduate of the Estonian Institute of Art Handicraft Metal Department, work. His conception of jewel was different from F. Daukantas, who emphasized asceticism of form, democratic tendencies and opportunities of metal components unification. K. Simanonis treated amber jewellery as an object of luxury and representation worn on special occasions. The designer revived cutting, encrustation, Filigree, boiled silver technique, especially suitable for irregular shape mineral.
The middle of the 8th and the 9th decades was a period when applied art revealed links to postmodern art, and various semi-precious stones became user-friendly ideas for the expression of postmodernism in Lithuania. Amber could not be used by postmodernists, who used to ignore typical stone properties and present cheap materials as long-lived.
Only at the end of the 20th century, enthusiasts, who were concerned of the development of this kind jewellery, decided to revive Lithuanian artists’ attention to amber. In 1990, amber exhibition was opened in Vilnius Museum of Applied Arts. Virginija and Kazimieras Mizgiris opened Amber Museum-Gallery in Nida, in 1993 and in Vilnius, in 1998. These two galleries started promoting mobilization of amber and jewellers working with this stone. Jewellery of Birutė Stulgaitė, Vytautas Matulionis, Žilvinas Bautrėnas, Sigitas Virpilaitis, Vaidilutė Vidugirytė and Jonas Balčiūnas, Eimantas Ludavičius, Vitalijus Milkintas, Solveiga Krivičienė, Indrė and Redas Diržys, Ąžuolas Vaitukaitis and others could be seen in those galleries as exhibitions. An old idea of “Hermann Blode artists’ Mecca” was reinvogorated in 1996, alongside an existing museum in Nida celebrated the opening of “Artists’ House”, which invited artists, amber workers and those who did not even hold amber in hands, but wanted to touch it, to learn something and find unique form of expression of this stone. Artists from Lithuania, Finland, Holland, Estonia, Ukraine, Iceland, France, Poland, also Vilnius, Lodz, Tallinn Art Academy students and teachers worked and had their exhibitions in this place. In 1999 Gallery was invited to participate in the International Baltic amber contest. After careful selection in Vilnius eight out of 25 Lithuanian artists got into the contest. J. Balčiūnas and V. Vidugirytė won the 3rd place in the competition. Lithuania was represented by S. Virpilaitis necklace “Gold and amber”, which won the Grand Prix in the International Amber Competition in Germany Amber Museum (Ribnitz Damgarten).
In order to expand amber popularity geographically, there was a mobile exhibition “Baltic amber: the history and design” created, which consisted of four parts: historical, archaeological, modern artists’ articles (B. Stulgaitė, V. Matulionis, Ž. Bautrėnas, Ą. Vaitukaitis, S. Virpilaitis, J. Balčiūnas and V. Vidugirytė) and folk art. The exhibition was brought to many countries around the world: Iceland, Canada, Belgium (the project representing the culture of Middle and East European countries in European Parlament), USA (Washington and Chicago) and Italy (the Festival of Modern Arts organised by Rome – European cultural fund in Vittoriano Museum in Rome). The exhibition together with the equipment weighs about 700 kg and takes about 120 m2 to be displayed. Now this well-travelled exposition can be visited in Amber Gallery “Hill of Crosses”.
Thus, it can be stated that now amber is going through a qualitatively new period of revival.