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9 march 2023

I classify things in these book reviews as animal, vegetable, or mineral. Amber is ambiguous. It is a semi-precious stone, in many ways treated like other mineral gems; but amber is vegetable in origin, and famous for often containing bits or the whole of animals.

As a gemstone of organic origin, amber is in an evocative liminal realm that includes jet, pearl, nacre, coral, and ivory. Amber matures and degrades; it is flammable; it has sometimes been supposed medicinal.

One theme in Rachel King's Amber is that amber has often been faked. Some very old recipes for phony amber exist, and much "amber" in circulation nowadays is probably orange plastic. In a sense, amber is a kind of proto-plastic, holding a place in Western culture (in utensils, decorations, gaming pieces, and doo-dads of all kinds) till more versatile synthetics could come along.

An early-modern craze for big animals trapped in amber (frogs, lizards) was largely fueled by fakes, says King. Amber inclusions are of great value to science, and piquant as art; but the more impossible they look, the more improbable their authenticity.

Amber is found in many locations around the world. Major sources are Myanmar and the Dominican Republic. But the quintessential amber is found on the Baltic coast. Or some of the Baltic coast; specifically the southeast shores of the Baltic, and some in Skåne. I often visit the island of Bornholm in the west-central Baltic. Just my luck, Bornholm seems to be entirely amber-free.

But in Gdansk, entire streets are filled with amber vendors. The proliferation of amber items probably reflects local abundance. But from time immemorial, the commonness of Baltic amber has been under tight control of local profiteers of one sort or another, state or commercial, who have capitalized on the relative dearth of amber in the rest of the world. The Baltic coast supplied amber, in antiquity and early-modern times, not just to Europe and the near East, but to China as well. Amber is treasured in China and there are many museum-piece examples. But till recently when the Chinese began to exploit Burmese sources, King explains, Chinese amber was Baltic amber, imported along great supply chains stretching thousands of miles.

Amber has the weakness, or perhaps the virtue, of being a fairly impractical substance. It is mostly used for decoration and ornament because it is hard to craft anything durable and useful out of amber. Sometimes utensils like knives would have amber fitted into their handles. But an amber spoon will soon break with use.

King is interested in social-justice issues that revolve around amber. Amber workers have often been exploited, from miners to bead-makers. Amber is a postcolonial commodity in the Dominican and in Myanmar, immiserating those who collect it. Early-modern amber gathering in the Baltic was literally a day at the beach, but a very lousy one. King describes how teams of naked men would plunge into the Baltic surf and rake for amber globules. Not long after, the naked men would be fished out, along with their amber, and wrapped up in hot blankets by their women. It all sounds rather inefficient, but the nudity, at least, was functional. The only thing worse than striding naked into the Baltic is striding in clothed and having your wet garments accelerate the freeze.

King, Rachel. Amber: From antiquity to eternity. London: Reaktion, 2022.