The Amber Capital
By Prof Andrzej Januszajtis
The Amber Route, which linked the Baltic Sea with the countries of the Mediterranean, lead through our area since at least the 2nd century before Christ.
Long before the year 997, when the world first learned about the city of Gdańsk – urbs Gyddanyzc – amber jewellers’ workshops operated here. Archaeologists found stocks of raw amber, amber products and semi-products from the 9th-13th century.
The sovereigns who reigned over Gdańsk had the power to regale i.e. a monopoly over the amber trade. Sometimes, they would transfer this right to someone.
The document of 1294, in which Mśiwój II (also known as Mestwin II), the Duke of Pomerania transferred the amber regale to the Cistercian Order of Eldena, is forgery; however, the abbey in Oliva certainly received such rights in 1305 from Wenceslaus III. The right to gather amber was also held by Gdańsk fishermen on condition that they transfer the amber to the Duke’s officials. In 1312, these rights were confirmed by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. At that time rosaries called “paternosters” made by Gdańsk amber jewelers became popular. So much so that today’s Kramarska St. was called Paternostergasse in 1350-1415. After the Teutonic rulers were driven out of the city in 1454, Polish king Casimir the Jagiellonian, gave the amber monopoly to the City Council. During his reign, in 1477, the Gdańsk amber jewellers’ guild was formed – the first such guild on the Baltic. The guild’s statute read: “Firstly, he who wishes to obtain the trade and guild rights must above all be our citizen and should bring letters and evidence that he is of righteous and legitimate birth, that he leads a decent and honest life and that neither he nor his wife has lost their dignity. Next, he who wishes to obtain the trade and guild rights, must learn the trade with a local master for a year’s time and before he announces his readiness, serve a year-and-a-half apprenticeship with a single master, and the announcement should come at a quarterly meeting, while during the second quarter following he should process a pound (435 g) of amber at the home of the grandmaster, to prove that he can make the product well and perform the craft; if he is unable to do so, he must work at his master’s to learn more. If he satisfies (the commission) with his work, he must pay the guild two good marks.”
In 1500, the following types of amber were distinguished: grand master amber – priced at 90 marks per ship’s pound (139 kg), pfenning amber – at 65-90 marks, and morsel amber (for varnish) – at 1 mark per tonne (162 litres). In 1526, the guild has 46 master craftsmen. In 1549, their number was limited to 40. In total, 286 master craftsmen were registered by 1812.
Raw amber supply was always a source of great difficulties. The supply of amber gathered and mined in the territory which belonged to the city was not sufficient.
Illegal purchase in Ducal (East) Prussia, where even today the richest deposits are located, meant the risk of harsh punishment. In 1528, the export of raw amber from Gdańsk was prohibited. From 1533 to 1642, the monopoly on Prussian amber was in the hands of the Kohne-Jaski family, so called after the Romanian town of Jassy, from which they originated (the name of Jaśkowa Dolina St. formerly Jäschkentaler Weg in Gdańsk also comes from this family. Thanks to the solidary stance of the amber jewelers of Gdańsk, Elblag, Slupsk, and Kolobrzeg, in 1583 a settlement was reached with Paul Kohne-Jaski concerning the purchase of raw amber. In 1699, the guild received a short-lived monopoly on Prussian amber from the Council. In the 18th century, there was an increase in illegal mining and export by, among others, Armenian and Jewish merchants. At the same time, the works of the Gdańsk masters: mini-altars, jewellery boxes and jewellery attained the peak of their artistry. Their most famous work was the Amber Room, based on the design of Andreas Schlüter, the great Gdańsk sculptor and architect.
How was amber processed in those times? We can find information about this in the journal of Gdańsk councillor Georg Schroder, who in 1673 had the opportunity to witness how an amber jeweler made a jewellery box. The amber is glued with resin, which is beforehand tempered with a special oil and has to be then strained when the pieces fit each other completely and a joint is made of them so they hold together better. The amber is ground with files so it becomes even, and then one has to polish it on a board which is tightly bound with leather and sprinkled with finely ground chalk. Next there is a description of amber rolling and the precautions used: exactly the same as those used today. Gdańsk also has indisputable pre-eminence in the scientific studies of amber. The first Gdańsk amber collections date back to the latter half of the 17th century. The collecting of inclusions was a particular specialty. The famous collection of Christoph Gottswald, the city Physician, was purchased by Russian tsar Peter I. The collection of Johann Jacob Klein ended up in Erlangen. In the 18th century, the collections of Daniel Gralath the Elder, Henrich de la Motte and Johann Scheffler became famous, while in the 19th century, the collections of Johann Aycke, Georg Berendt and Franz Menge earned acclaim. The West-Prussian National Museum, established in Gdańsk’s Green Gate in 1879 had the second largest amber collection after Königsberg. Part of the collection was sent to the Museum of the Earth in Warsaw after the Second World War. Gdańsk’s importance as a center of scientific research on amber is proven by the fact that almost all of the classic works on the subject come from here. Their authors came from the Natural History Society, established in 1742 – the first such organization in Poland.
By 1895, 25 dissertations on amber were published. The most important of these included works by the aforementioned J. Scheffler (published in 1778), J. Aycke (1835), F. Menge (1853-1883), G. Berendt (1845), and others. The three-volume monograph on amber flora, written in 1883-1890 under the direction of Hugo Conwentz, the long-standing director of the Museum in the Green Gate and a pioneer of world ecology, who developed the definition of a natural monument, and established the ornithological station at Górki Wschodnie in Gdańsk (which now belongs to the Polish Academy of Sciences), is still pre-eminently relevant today. Today’s Gdańsk academics continue the work of their predecessors, just as the achievement of the artists and craftsmen of old are continued by today’s Gdańsk amber jewelers. Gdańsk is still the world capital of amber.
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