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In search of the amber room

In search of the amber room

Much has been written about the elusive Amber Room, but the mystery remains.

The Amber Room's seizure and subsequent disappearance at the close of WW II is arguably the greatest jewel heist ever pulled off- if only on the grounds the chamber itself was the world's biggest jewelry box, turned inside out. Whether or not it somehow yet survives to rise again like raw amber churned up in a storm-tossed sea remains unanswered still. Conspiracy theories abound. The untimely demise of some prominent Amber Room hunters plus the many divers who died exploring the unmapped maze of underground sluices looming below Kaliningrad, flooded by panic-stricken fascists during the final bombardment, only spark speculation the Room is further shadowed by a curse. The estimated value of the Amber Room at today's prices fluctuates wildly: 142 million USD, 250 million USD, 120 million pounds sterling. But there may be no real way to measure its worth. Like nesting Matryoshko dolls, the Room hails from a lost prehistoric world neatly tucked inside still another lost world. About 45 million years ago, subtropical trees from the mountainous region known as the amber forest (long extinct, known collectively as Pinus Succinifera) underwent drastic climate change, became stressed and began to weep copious amounts of resin. Sometimes in the form of whole trunks, they were next borne out to sea by rivers. Over eons, these oozings became the translucent material known as amber, one of three known gems of vegetative origin (others are jet, coral and diamond). Lightest, softest, most fragile of all gems, amber was one of the first commercial products used for trade and the oldest form of jewelry. Amber has a long and illustrious history as a coveted luxury item. The Amber Route is a well-documented European trade equivalent to China's Silk Road, one punctuated by gallows. Once a tiny piece of amber was worth the life of a slave. Amber graced the bridles of wild and wildly wronged beasts for Rome's pleasure, was found in the tombs of Pharaohs and burned as the richest incense as a gesture of opulence by Chinese emperors. Long has amber been revered as magical, medicinal, sacred, a healing stone, a vessel of eternal life and above all-beautiful. Today one may purchase a perfectly lovely Baltic amber pendant for the cost of a fine meal, an affordable luxury. How can we possibly calculate the worth of the original Amber Room, in which over six tons of choice Baltic amber was deployed using lost methods? We no longer attempt to create objects of beauty on this order, our architecture is the poorest echo of what once was, a collection of mere glass, steel and angles. Perhaps the only equivalent we can offer to these ancient flights of fancy, these nearly obscene delights so often executed at the ruination of the poor to the delight of the noble, is the space shuttle-our modern answer to the Pyramids, the ruined castles, the Cambodian temples of Angkor-Wat. But even the space programs have a sort of utility most foreign to the aesthetic excesses of Emperors and Empresses alike. Or maybe it is in Hollywood then, where we find our answer� A place in which lovingly created, lavish worlds impossible to realize in physical reality take root and burn in the human heart and human eye. Of the Amber Room, Theophile Gautier wrote in the 1860s:

'Only in The Thousand and One Nights -and in magic fairy tales, where the architecture of palaces Is trusted to magicians, spirits and genies, one can read about rooms made of diamonds, rubies, jacinth and other jewels used for jewelry- the expression 'The Amber Room' Is not just a poetic hyperbole, but exact reality. The eye which has not adapted to seeing this material, applied in such scale, is amazed and is blinded by the wealth and warmth of tints, representing all colours [in the] spectrum of yellow - from smoky topaz up to a light lemon. The gold of carvings seems dim and false in this neighborhood, especially when the sun falls on the walls and runs thru transparent veins, as though sliding... '

Subject of perpetual renovation, the Amber Room had as many lives and more shapes than a cat. The story unfolds in as many locations. Prussian King Frederick I sought to have the most impressive work of amber art ever created. His chief architect, Andreas Schluter and Gottfried Woffram, an amber artist based at court in Copenhagen, were commissioned to devise a study for the Great Royal Palace in Berlin, using Baltic amber, never before used for interior decoration on such a monumental scale. Work began in 1701 and continued until 1713, drawing on the King's existing amber stores and the best efforts of the most talented amber masters alive. It was subject to plenty of internal bickering and court intrigue along the way. When the old king died, the Amber Room was almost but not quite complete. When Frederick Wilhelm I came to power he was unmoved by the ambitious and costly project, rumor of which had by then traveled to eager ears in Russia. Dispatched to the Berlin Armoury, it languished for three years. En route to France, Russian Tsar Peter I visited Prussia in 1716, casting an admiring gaze on the masterpiece. He was asked to accept the unusual room as a diplomatic gift in order to cement the always uneasy alliance between the two warlike states. Peter's return present. Fifty-five choice grenadiers (unusually tall soldiers) and a royal cup designed by the Tsar's own hand. A year later, after six weeks and a complex route (Berlin, Koenigsburg, Memel, Riga then St.Petersburg) the chests arrived at the Winter Palace. Unpacked, but left unassembled the panels were eventually deposited into storage in a wing of the Summer Palace known as the Kunstkammer (Peter's Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography). There they lay, largely forgotten, until the 1740's. Then Elizabeth I took the throne. The luminous salon was given yet another home in the new, third Winter Palace, in the audience hall. The dimensions of the allotted space and the panels were off, thus faux amber panels and mirrors were added. Shifting from room to room, it followed the curve of Palace reconstruction, serving as a reception hall for state functions. In 1755 the Tsarina ordered the fragile Room to be hand carried to Catherine Palace in Tsarskoje Selo (Tsar's Village, now Pushkin) under the direction of Italian architect Francesco Rastrelli, a court favorite. The village, traditional summer residence of the Tsars, flowed over 1500 acres, boasted over one hundred buildings, the crowning glory of which remains the magnificent Catherine Palace, the oldest structure in the village. By all accounts entering the room itself was like stepping into a monumental, lit-from-within Fabreg egg. "When the work was finished, in 1770, the room was dazzling," write art historians Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov. "It was illuminated by 565 candles whose light was reflected in the warm gold surface of the amber and sparkled in the mirrors, gilt, and mosaics." Rastrelli, with the help of fellow countryman Aleksander Martelli and expert teams including local peasants specially recruited and trained for the task, presided over massive improvements in the Amber Room. He is credited with creating a highly unique and faithful version of this particular installation of the Room. In 1763, Empress Catherine II ordered the previously painted panels to be replaced with authentic amber ones. During this phase the exotic Florentine mosaics, four masterworks of gem-cutting composed of semi-precious stones such as serpentine and onyx depicting the five senses (sight, sound, scent, taste and touch) -a technique perfected by the Medici family- were added. Also showcased in the chamber were numerous fantastic amber masterworks created independently from far-flung centers of amber production. All told, the Amber Room underwent several changes and improvements in 1833, 1865, and again between 1893 and 1897, and minor repairs performed again as late as the 1920s and 30s. Damage occurred due to fluctuating temperatures, and was repaired. 1941 was slated as a year for a major renovation. However, the dogs of war had already sunk their teeth into Russia's flanks. Early in WWII when evacuations of valuable artworks were already being made from Tsarskoje Selo and drawn further behind the lines, it was deemed the Amber Room was too fragile to endure such a move. Instead it was disguised with cotton and gauze, essentially wallpapered over. The Russians made preparations to secret the panels away to underground vaults in Sverdlovsk, but they were too late. A city born of the singular will of its patron saint, St. Petersburg is made up of over 100 islands and connected by some 340 bridges, spanning more than 60 rivers and canals. No building is allowed to be higher than the Winter Palace, the one-time home of the Amber Room under Peter and Catherine. Less than two and a half months after June 22, 1941, when the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany, German troops advanced on St. Petersburg, famously laying siege (Blokada) on the city of Leningrad for 900 days. An estimated 675,000 people died from the cold, shelling, starvation and disease, each sadly destined for mass graves later to become stirring war memorials. It is reported that some citizens finally fell to eating their own horses to stay alive, then ate what the horses would have consumed. Yet the city itself never fell. Tsarskoje Selo did, and hard. During the occupation, the Germans, adding insult to injury sent cultural officers to evaluate and seize looted artworks as trophies of war. These were collectively intended for the Fuhrer's planned Museum of World Culture in Berlin had the war gone otherwise. They unmasked the thin disguise of the gloriously bejeweled Room and systematically looted the palace, dismantling the rooms as they went. They spirited the contents away to the then-capitol city of Prussia, Koninsberg (now Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave). As late as April 1945, the Amber Room was known to be mounted as an exhibit in Konigsberg Castle. A historic capitol of world amber production, it stands on large deposits of amber and -blue mud- along the Samland Penninsula. This birthplace of the Amber Room is in fact a historic seat of amber production, originating 90% of the world's Baltic amber output previous to the recent collapse of the main mine as recently as the 1990s. Here, in January 1945 after air raids and a savage ground assault by the Allied forces upon Konigsberg, is where the trail of the Amber Room goes cold...

The Amber Room story had all the makings of a great historical detective story: buried treasure, Nazi secrets, Cold War conspiracy theories, secret hiding places and classified files.

The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure by Adrian Levy (Author), Catherine Scott-Clark (Author)

  • I'm thankful that I was home today when the USPS carrier rang my door bell and asked for the required signature confirming successful package delivery. The parcel arrived in perfect condition; I thought the bow wrapped inner box was a lovely touch! The cognac Amber Bracelets and matching Amber Necklaces are beautiful and because we're having a sunny day here in Austin, Texas, I've placed all of the Amber Jewelry outside to absorb some of this marvelous sunshine; I've heard that amber is sometimes called the Tears of the Sun. Also, I find it interesting that people* who can see the human auric field, say that it's one of only a few substances that strengthens and makes brighter the subtle energy body. The 3 bonus gifts: multicolored amber ring, cognac heart pendant, raw amber. Are very much appreciated!

    D. P. Austin, TX

  • Your account records can verify that I'm am a repeat client from the USA and have always been pleased with the quality of your jewelry products and customer service. The amber barrel-clasps on the necklaces have never broken or failed and are easy to fasten by using feel of touch alone, which is a big plus for the very elderly; while the strands of individually knotted, pebble-like, beads of polished Amber that compose the necklaces, have held firm and remained shiny and beautiful throughout years of continuous wear and are making many of my close friends very happy.

    Anonymous

  • I give you my permission to use any portion of this correspondence to post on your website regarding customer satisfaction feedback.

    M. H.- Indianapolis, IN

  • I just got my sons Amber Teething Neckace today and it is beautiful! I will be recommending your business to all of my friends because not only is the quality of the product great, your communication was excellent. thanks again!

    K.O.- LAS VEGAS, NV

  • I had done weeks of extensive research, and ended up ordering a total of 6 items over three separate orders. This is a family owned company with excellent customer service and workmanship. Over the 3 month period I was ordering Amber Jewelry, they continually updated their website to be more extensive and user friendly. They are flexible and communicate promptly and professionally. They also want you to know that your Baltic Amber Jewelery is authentic, so they send extra beads and explain how to test them for authenticity. They also provide extensive information about the history and uses for their product. I have truly enjoyed doing business w/them as well. They guarantee your satisfaction and accept returns and exchanges. I wish there were more small, artisan-type stores like this. I definitely recommend them for quality, customer service and overall value.

    B. P. - Pensacola, FL

  • I received my Amber Necklaces in about 10 working days, coming all the way from Lithuania! It's hard to get US merchandise that quick. The experience with this company was fantastic. Everything they said about their product is true. I love the necklaces...they are beautiful Amber and of great quality. I received confirmation on purchase and shipping right away and was not concerned with credit card info since they use paypal. All in all this is a great company and I will purchase from them again and again.

    J.O. - Toronto, Canada

  • Dear Svajunas and Amber Artisans, We received our Mom and Baby Necklace set and absolutely love them! They are gorgeous and exactly what I wanted, not to mention the fact that they have helped with teething and neck aches. I have recommended your company to all my friends--thank you so very much!

    A.R. Tarentum PA

  • I had a slightly custom request with my purchase for Mens Beaded Bracelet and they more than graciously accomodated 100%. My order came, and was perfect and absolutely gorgeous. It is clear that they took care to not only make a quality product but to also make it a personal work of art. They should be proud. I will be doing business with Amber Artisans again soon! Thank you very much!

    Anonymous

  • Very personable, excellent craftsmanship, I will absolutely return to Amber Artisans.

    P.G. Northridge CA

  • The rep at "Amber Artisans" responded to my email very quickly. And I received the Amber Necklaces shortly thereafter.I knew I was ordering from a company overseas and that was my main concern that the company was legitimate.So receiving an email that quickly was comforting.Thank you.

    M.D. Paradise CA

  • I am very pleased with our new Amber Necklaces. The craftsmanship is exceptional! The necklaces are beautiful and I feel safe with the attention to detail in the design. The clasp is easy to use and the individual stringing is peace of mind for my baby's necklace. She was cutting her two top teeth and miserable. I am not sure of the effects as of yet, since it is day two. It does take some time to recieve them as they are coming from Lithuania., so be patient.Thank you!

    E.P.- Glendale, CA

  • Amber Artisans has the highest quality Baltic Amber out there. I highly recommend them. I purchased Amber from another store and was not satisfied. Amber Artisans has the nicest and best priced amber. Their quality far exceeds others and the customer service is excellent, thank you Amber Artisans for truly believing in your product and putting so much love and effort into it!

    E.P.- Glendale, CA

  • This is my second order for Baltic Amber Necklaces, I gave mine away because my sister loved it. Your quality and authenticity is the best there is out there for Amber. My daughter wears her Amber Necklace every day and loves it. Thank you so much for providing such a rare, beautiful and healing necklace for us. As I mentioned to you in my email, my vitiligo is healing after wearing the Moms healing necklace for 2 weeks, it is a miracle!!! Thank you.

    M.C. Reno, NV

  • Beautiful Mens Beaded Bracelet, fast shipping considering the great distant. Thank you!

    E.K. - British Columbia, Canada

  • "Thank you so very much for the way you handled our order for Mother and Baby Amber Teething Necklaces. I wanted to let you know how truly thrilled I am about their quality! I was naturally a little worried, ordering it online, without feeling or touching it first.....but I am so completely impressed! I believe you have truly set the bar very high for having a "quality experience” with purchasing such an important item on the Internet. I am wearing mine everywhere and my little bundle of joy is wearing his.”

    K.S. - Seattle, WA

  • "I just have to write to tell you how absolutely fabulous my new Amber Bracelet is. I’m getting so many compliments that I want to wear it all the time!” I’m definitely spreading the news about amberartisans. You’ll definitely hear from again!”

    J.P.- Grover Beach, CA

  • "Just wanted to let you know the Baltic Amber Teething Necklaces we received were exactly what we were hoping for. The baby has been actually sleeping through the night and the teething pain has miraculously stopped. We will not hesitate to recommend your company to our friends."

    V.G. - Destin, FL

  • "WOW!!! The Amber Bracelets looked great online, but in person they are superb! My yellow butterscotch cuff really stands out and I don't mind the attention! Thanks for your efforts in shipping so fast."

    Anonymous