Una Meistere: The Renaissance of Amber?

Una Meistere: The Renaissance of Amber?
Publicity photo . Work by artist Andris Lauders
Una Meistere
In a way, now is a time of renaissance for amber. However, this announcement may seem a little strange at first, considering amber’s 40–60 million year history and its status as “The Baltic gold”. After all, few other materials are entwined with so much mythology.

Despite the countless hypotheses, the origins of amber still hold many secrets. Did it all really begin with resin from the Pinaceae tree, which, like the subtropical forests that once covered Scandinavia, no longer grows in this area? And what about amber’s unusual physical properties? Amber is only slightly heavier and denser than water, which means that it sinks in freshwater but floats in saltwater. It is fragrant when burned and electrifies when rubbed.

Held in the hand, it reminds us of an encapsulated sun and even feels relatively warm to the touch.

Amber carries the stamp of the Universe and has a mystical sort of wisdom. In a way, it embodies the traveller’s dream, because in its journeys through space, time and civilisations amber has no peers. But only fragments of these travels remain, leading to the variety of theories and even fantasies surrounding this gemstone. Over the centuries and millenia, cultures and civilisations around the world have attributed countless healing properties to amber and have made amulets and talismans from the material. The Egyptians ground amber into a powder, mixed it with honey and wine and used the mixture to strengthen the heart and other internal organs. Amber necklaces have also been believed to protect the wearer from neck and throat ailments.

“In earlier times, pieces of amber were sewn into children’s clothing, and amber dipped in vinegar was thought to ease toothaches (...). The ancient Greeks, too, believed in the valuable medicinal properties of amber. A secondary meaning of the Greek word for amber – elektron (substance of the sun) – is “I protect”, and in classical times amber was believed to promote fertility, to protect against evil and to guard against fevers and other illnesses,” writes Māra Kalniņš in her book “The Ancient Amber Routes: Travels from Riga to Byzantium”1.

Because of its value, many were willing to risk their lives to transport the gemstone along the ancient amber trade routes.

For example, the Romans valued amber so highly that a piece of it the size of a child’s fist cost more than a slave. The Etruscans (1200 – 600 BCE), for their part, “considered amber more valuable than gold”². Amber has been traded for many centuries, and it has been worshipped as an object of beauty for at least as long. No one has ever been indifferent to amber; “it is either loved or hated”³.

Paradoxically, the iconic status of amber has long also been a stumbling block in its use in contemporary jewellery, where, with only a few exceptions, it has never been a favourite material for artists.

In the majority of lands along the so-called Amber Road, especially those once a part of the Soviet Union, amber has generally long been associated with “Grandma’s jewellery box”4 and various kitschy pseudo-ethnic objects, making it difficult for the gemstone to break free from these associations. Quite by chance, this just confirms the feeling that amber somehow belongs to times long ago. During Soviet times, amber jewellery was mass-produced and acquired a reputation for being a cheap and popular souvenir with no added value, just gaudy strings of beads hanging in souvenir stalls and handicraft shops in the Old Town.

Necklaces of identical, polished round beads and brooches with two pieces of amber resembling drops of water were very popular.

In addition, most of this jewellery was worn by mature, older women donning dresses of a similar vintage. Amber, therefore, existed far from any notion of “modernity” or “contemporaneity”. The uniformity of the designs and amber, the gemstone’s seeming ubiquity and the over-saturated shops made amber uninteresting to potential consumers as well as jewellery artists.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent political and economic changes in Eastern Europe, however, led to efforts to reanimate amber. Ironically, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park acted as a sort of catalyst in this process, with its story of cloning dinosaurs from DNA found in the blood of a mosquito captured 65 million years ago in a piece of amber. The film provoked not only scientific discussions about how long DNA can be preserved, but also sparked a whole renaissance in the popularity of amber. Jurassic-Park-themed souvenirs flooded the market – from plastic dinosaurs to pieces of amber containing “preserved” insects.

As is well known, amber has the unique ability to encapsulate and preserve organic materials that once happened to be in its way.

Amber is sometimes called the “window to the past”, and for good reason5. Insects, leaves, spores, buds, pollen and much more has been preserved in amber – in all, over 214 species have been identified, some of them microscopic in size. In fact, these “sepulchres” provide much more detailed information than traditional fossils, in which insects are usually flattened or only fragments of their bodies remain, whereas in amber they still look practically alive, if only a bit discoloured. The passions aroused worldwide by Spielberg’s pseudo-scientific film were once again awakened last year, when it was announced that filming for the fourth film in the Jurassic Park series had begun. The film is planned to be released in 2015. Scientists, of course, will again be forced to cool fans’ imaginations with the fact that dinosaurs cannot actually be revived as shown on the screen. For example, following unsuccessful attempts at extracting DNA from 60 to 10,600-year-old pieces of copal, researchers at the University of Michigan concluded that “in older amber samples that are millions of years old, the chances of being able to extract intact DNA is even slimmer.”6.

 

It is assumed that the recent economic crisis served as fertile ground that encouraged amber’s rebirth. This period marked a natural decline of the amber souvenir industry as well as the beginning of amber’s rehabilitation. Poland has had the most success in this process, especially the city of Gdansk, where the International Amber Association was established in 1996. The association unites amber merchants and artists working with amber as well as amber collectors. The ADA Amberif Design Award in International Jewellery Design, also established in Gdansk in 1996, has become one of the most respected awards; its goal is to popularise amber among trendsetters in jewellery design, thereby increasing the popularity of the gemstone in general. The award entries include experimental and innovative projects by art students as well as experienced and well known jewellery artists from around the world. The Italian artist Gigi Mariani took part in this prestigious exhibition in 2012. Asked about what draws him to amber as a material, Mariani explained that he is most fascinated by its “softness, transparency and outward fragility; all things that are in contrast with my own way of working but allow me to bring out its characteristics by wrapping and protecting it with the strength of the metal”. The sharp contrasts and the relationship between hardness and fragility experienced in Mariani’s work makes his jewellery so special and immediately recognisable.

Lithuania was also a significant stop along the Amber Road. Today, the small country has undeniably done its part in promoting amber’s renaissance, and one of the main trailblazers in this “rehabilitation” was an exhibition at the Vilnius Museum of Applied Art in 1989 that focused on a nontraditional approach to amber. The Lithuanian collectors Virginia and Kazimieras Mizgiris and their Gallery and Museum of Amber have already become legends in the field. The couple established their first gallery in Nida and later opened an affiliate gallery in Vilnius, which was eventually joined by the Baltic Amber Art Centre. The Mizgiris’ are interested in both ancient amber and interpretations thereof in contemporary jewellery.

Still, the greatest challenge to contemporary jewellery and amber is the very powerful mythology associated with the gemstone, the strongly-held stereotypes that are so difficult to shatter.

The “Amber in Contemporary Jewellery” exhibition is another attempt to free ourselves from these stereotypes and take a look at amber from a completely different viewpoint. The exhibition emphasises amber’s quality as a self-sufficient, unique and varied material and discards the mythology of amber being the special Baltic “gemstone”, a national symbol, etc. At the same time, however, the exhibition preserves the DNA of amber as a cultural crossroads and sign of communication between various civilisations and ecosystems. As explained by Slovenian artist Nataša Grandovec, who has tried to tear down her own stereotypes in the process of creating her collection of amber jewellery: “I thought it was only my grandmother and her friends who wore amber brooches and necklaces.” She has deliberately gone the light-hearted route, desiring to rid herself and amber of associations that have followed her since childhood and that have relegated amber to the role of being an accessory for maturity and the end of life.

Amber’s most complicated relationship has been with that radical branch of contemporary jewellery known as conceptual jewellery. Like conceptual fashion, “conceptualism” in the jewellery industry has always been the eternal rebel as well as the sensitive litmus test that challenges accepted thought, broadens and tears down borders, accumulates and reflects what is happening around us and expresses it all in a language of jewellery. Conceptual jewellery is said to have been born in the 1960s, a time when all previous paradigms in fashion and jewellery were being torn down. Experimentation with completely new styles and materials was at the foundation of conceptual jewellery. Jewellery artists in this era began using such novelties in the field as plastics, various types of metal, paper, rubber, natural materials and even fabrics, which allowed them to create gentler and more plastic forms than metal had allowed. From being just an ornamental accessory and thing of beauty, jewellery became an endless embodiment of creative fantasy – a sometimes provocative challenge, a social announcement that momentarily pushed aside the accepted practical and commercial aspects of jewellery. The materials used in jewellery became the flesh and blood, or the media, through which one could shout out a message about nearly everything. But because amber, when compared with many other precious and semi-precious gemstones, has a very pronounced individuality (its colour and visual qualities), it has not been a favourite material for radical experimentation. Preparing for this exhibition was the first interaction with amber for several of the exhibited artists.

One of the pioneers of Austrian conceptual jewellery, Helfried Kodre, whose signature is the interplay between volumes, says:

“I used it for the first time, so to me amber means a lot of learning and an exciting experience.

It is a really inspiring but also a very demanding material, because its character seems to be quite opposite to the style of my work. But, because this contradiction is very interesting, I certainly will continue to use amber in my work.” Latvian artist Valdis Brože also worked with amber for the first time. He says: “As a material, amber never appealed to me and I’ve hardly ever used it. I guess I’ve just seen it too much and in strange forms, for example, those amber pictures of birches and horses. But I must admit that I’ve now discovered it anew. The multiformity of amber – milky, dark red, bog-coloured, processed, raw – provides lots of opportunities. I will definitely continue to work with this material, which is something I never would have said a couple of years ago.” In a certain sense, the jewellerymaker’s dialogue with amber is still a big battle, a battle that requires a superb feeling for the material and a solid intellectual investment.

“Amber is an ambiguous material. The presence of mass-produced products all around makes the creative process difficult, because it’s hard to look upon the material without any prejudices. One must look back to very ancient times to again see the true beauty of amber. But there are many advantages to amber in the jewellery-making process. Compared to the much harder materials I usually use, I can achieve a result with amber more easily and faster. Also, I do not need to worry about the size of the piece of jewellery, because amber is a light material,” says Latvian jewellery artist Jānis Vilks.

Another sensitive issue is how much one can interfere with amber before destroying it, before it becomes flat and banal like the baubles sold at souvenir stands, which still have not been eradicated from our minds.

Or the opposite – a kitschy end in itself, dominated by the ego. One of the artists featured in this exhibition, Heidemarie Herb of Germany, believes “amber has unique and fascinating qualities that have to be respected when working with it. With its endlessly long history, when selecting amber, one must consider its end use, as every unworked piece has a unique colour, form and texture. In order to maintain its natural beauty, it is important that each piece of amber remains as unaltered as possible, by adapting the jewellery design to the stone, and not the stone to the design. There is an expression about amber: ‘At first, you have the amber, and then it has you.’ This saying applies to how I work with amber: it is a dialogue, a harmonious interaction.”

Conversations with amber – this is in fact what the exhibition is about. What makes it even more challenging and intriguing is the fact that amber is such an experienced and powerful conversation partner who demands likewise literate partners, both among jewellery-makers and jewellery-wearers.

One clumsy step, and it pulls us into banality and the realm of pseudo-folk objects. “In my creations I use only as much amber as needed to reveal an idea. Most often it’s in the context of amber’s relentless use – consumption. It’s hard for me to ‘raise a hand against it’ [handle it roughly]; on the contrary, I regard it as I would old photographs that are viewed only from time to time. I don’t choose amber as a material in my work; mostly I prefer to just hold it in my hand,” says Lithuanian artist Jurgita Erminaitė-Šimkuvienė, who participates in this exhibition with her conceptual work “Take Away” – a fast-food container that also serves as a philosophical meditation on the theme “fast, cheap, effective”, which is one of the main slogans in today’s global world, which is overrun with goods made in China.

Speaking of which, the demand for amber in China’s market has grown significantly over the past few years. And so, this exhibition has moved from being a conversation with (and about) amber to being a conversation with ourselves in the 21st century and about what we will leave to subsequent generations of amber discoverers. Additional intrigue is added by the diversity of the partners in this conversation, who symbolically represent the many stops along the Amber Road. They represent different cultural experiences but also an existence together in a common global space, which is as inseparable and mutually linked as the mark of the Universe is on a piece of amber.

Endnotes

1. Kalniņa, Māra. The Ancient Amber Routes: Travels from Riga to Byzantium. Riga: Pētergailis, [2013], p. 188.
2. Amber Vein, August 2, 2011. Published online: http://office.riga2014.org/en/2011/08/02/dzintara-adere-2/.
3. Pileckaitė, Rūta. Amber Jewelry of Sigitas Virpilaitis: Postmodern Approach. Klimt 02, 2001. Published online: http://www.klimt02.net/forum/index.php?item_id=934.
4. Amber: Treasure from Poland Consortium. The Bursztyn Skrab Polski, 2012, p. 7.
5. Grimaldo, David A. Amber: Window to the Past. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 2003.
6. Gray, Richard. Jurassic Park ruled out – dinosaur DNA not survive in amber. The Telegraph, September 12, 2013. Published online: www.telegraph.co.uk/science/dinosaurs/10303795/Jurassic-Park-ruledout-dinosaur-DNA-could-not-survive-in-amber.html.
7. Pileckaitė, Rūta. Amber Jewelry of Sigitas Virpilaitis: Postmodern Approach. Klimt 02, 2001. Published online: http://www.klimt02.net/forum/index.php?item_id=934.

P.S. The international exhibition “Amber in Contemporary Art Jewellery”, part of the “Riga 2014” programme, opens at the art gallery “Putti” on the 22nd of May.

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