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Amber and Wood

When amber is combined with wood in jewelry and works’ of art it reveals a new expression and tone. Gold gives a shade of luxury, silver – cool elegance, leather – a sense of warmth and comfort. Wood has a special at place in this unlimited number of components.

The combination of wood and amber is a very old tradition in the handicraft and folk art of the countries on the Baltic Sea. Such a combination was used to make coffers and furniture or even entire interior decoration ensembles (including the famous Amber Room). Wood always played an auxiliary role in such works. It serves as a base, a structural frame or as a supplement in mosaics. Carved wooden components, usually guilded, often provided a frame or complemented the amber decor (amber was universally though it to took best against a gold background).

As a material, wood has a number of properties which are hazardous to amber. Wood absorbs humidity from the ambient air, it is liable to swell and deformation; it dries invariably to become warped or covered with cracks; it is threatened by fungi and insects. On the other hand, as a soft and pliable material, wood is very similar to amber, not only because it originates from the same plant kingdom. Wood, just like Sunnite, contains the energy of the sun and a record of our planet’s past.

Just like basic amber, wood has thousands of varieties which differ in their durability, density, colour; and grain patterns. All kinds of wood varieties are used in combination with amber, usually combined with (oak, cherry, beech, pear, ash, white maple, great maple, walnut etc) to relatively rare and expensive OTOS (rosewood, mahogany, ebony, pad auk, African rosewood (wedge), boxwood etc.).

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Almost every contemporary artist who works’ in amber has combined amber with wood at least from time to time. Examples include works’ of art and jewelry by such artists as; Lonny Fechner {Denmark), Jan Materek, (Poland), Manuel Vilhena (Portugal), Sjlke Trekel (Germany), Ludmila Sakharova (Russia), Sigitas VJrpjtaitis (Lithuania) and many others.

One can find most intriguing result in the work of the masters who specialize in “amber and wood” compositions, A good example is the work of Marts Wtodarska (Poland), who combines raw or lightly cut natural amber with driftwood – splinters of wood washed up on the Baltic shore by the the sea waves. Each time she manages to select the wood’s color and grain pattern in such a way that its proximity to amber highlights the amber’s natural beauty.3d5e75b73be55399fbdd28528f91113f1589774092 cropped optimized

In her innovative necklaces and bracelet, Eltblta Szuplinko (Poland) also combat bits of timber with splinters of branches and fragments of wood found washed up on the Baltic beaches. She usually then carefully creates crafted pieces, only sometimes does she gild the fragments.

Tubas Ircha (Poland) takes a different approach. His pieces have perfect amber gemstones with regular forms, which are outstandingly displayed in highly polished geometrically-shaped (round and rectangular) settings made in rare and expensive woods such as wedge, macaque and bublnga.

Glowing with its sunny light and vital strength, the amber clearly contrasts with the ascetic background of the dark wood. As a result, perhaps because he uses a third component – silver connectors – his jewelry It extraordinarily harmonious, ornamental and truly elegant.

Dorota Kos (Poland) is an artist who has her own style of creating mosaic arrangements by interweaving bits of amber and wood which she uses to make her brooches, rings and pendants. Her style is reminiscent of the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrlan and Theo van Doesburg, the founders of De Stijl.

INTERNATIONAL AMBER RESEARCHER SYMPOSIUM

Giennadiy Losets (Russia), maker of elegant accessories, most frequently combines wood with amber. Wood (boxwood and walnut) is the primary material for the stems of his pipes and the bodies of his snuffboxes, while he uses amber to make the mouth pieces and the encrusted and appliqued ornamental details. The wood and amber are always a perfect match in terms of color. They have a common golden yellow or brown-claret. colour. Their appeal is heightened by Losets’ tasteful amber and metal incrustations.

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Turned on a lathe, wood is an important part of popular interior decor items, such as pens, locks, lamps and chess-sets, which are the speciality of the Kaliningrad-based amber masters, Boris Serov and Yun and Vadim Lopatkin.

The same method of wood crafting is used to make designer vases from valuable woods decorated with amber and other ornamental materials (mother-of-pearl, silver, gold foil etc by master VItaty Papst of Germany.

In the souvenirs made by Alexander Yuritsin (Russia), a wooden structure made as a support for amber figure is transformed from a simple pedestal into an important element of the content and form. {The Golden Fleece, A Bunch of Gnomes},

A separate place in the world of wood and amber belongs to the abstract compositions of Igor aialdinov (Russia), in which the combination of the two materials is so natural that sometimes the bondary between amber and wood gets blurred.

The most striking piece in amber and wood art has been achieved in earrings and sculptures. The Innovative object cottages by Paulina Binek (Poland), which are full of deep phiiosophical meaning. The sssembiage technique allows her to use bits of amber, scales, snatches of rope, paper, fabric and fossil to create expressive images Aat make one think about the futility of life, the flow of time, the mysteries of nature and the challenges of modernity (the triptych Sign Off, the picture-necklace A Leaf from the Calendar etc.).

Andrey Kavetsky (Russia) is perhaps the most inventive artist to integrate wood and amber. In his

“dualist” sculptures, amber and wood not only complement each other, but also often contrast with one another. And although the majority of his sculptures are made of wood, it is the comparatively small sculpted amber components that determine the sculptures’ form and content.

Considering the reasons why wood is used by many talented amber jewelry masters, it would be that they realised that the characterstics baltic amber provided was enough.

For scientists, amber is thrilling. It preserves ancient organisms in incredible detail, down to the veins in insect wings and the lenses on fly eyes. It even captures creatures in the middle of actions, such as running or laying eggs or mating. Studying fossils in amber after studying fossils in rock is like switching from grainy black-and-white television to high-definition movies. “With amber, you’re actually seeing the full three-dimensional morphology,” Downen says. “With fossils in rock, there is compression or flattening, so it’s a two-dimensional surface.”

While researchers have used amber for decades, new techniques and new finds are making it more scientifically valuable than ever. But amber, it turns out, comes at a high cost—both financial and human.

That amber fossils exist at all is a bit of a miracle—a succession of miracles, even. First, a tree has to be oozing sap (in the Dominican Republic, amber forms from the sap of the Hymenaea tree). Healthy trees don’t dribble goo—trees do so only when they are stressed by damage, insects, fires, or disease. The resin acts like a translucent bandage, protecting the tree from further injury.

Then, an insect or other creature has to be trapped in the resin. The most common victims are flies (about half of biological inclusions are flies), but social insects such as ants, bees, and termites are also often found in stalactites of resin. The creature either drowns as the sticky goo fills its mouth and spiracles (bug lungs) or starves as it struggles to escape the resin. Most insects or arthropods fossilized in amber are less than seven-eighths of an inch long, since larger creatures can usually pull themselves out of the resin’s deadly grasp.

In this prehistoric kitchen, with millions of years of time plus pressure, the resin hardens into a polymer, in the same way plastic is made from petroleum. The resin has then become amber—nonreactive, stable, and a perfect preserver for the life caught inside.

Amber is found in many places around the world, from Alaska to Madagascar, but the largest deposits exploited for jewelry and science are in the Dominican Republic, the Baltic region of Europe, and Myanmar, also known as Burma. Each region represents a different era of Earth’s geologic past: Dominican amber is the youngest, between 16 and 20 million years old; Baltic amber, which like its Dominican counterpart typically includes ants, flies, and lizards, is 40 million years old; and Burmese amber, whose vertebrate diversity is unparalleled, is about 100 million years old. By comparing the species and ecosystems represented in amber, scientists are starting to tackle giant questions about extinction, conservation, and the evolutionary history of the species we see today.

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On a forest path in the Dominican Republic’s eastern hills, I passed a tree that was oozing resin, and I reached out to touch the flow. It was firm but viscous; it was easy to see how an ant or lizard could get stuck in its sticky reach. The 16-million-year history of amber on this island is thought to have begun in a world much like this one, full of flowers floating in the breeze, caterpillars creeping up branches, crickets munching foliage, and lines of ants and termites moving busily up and down the conifers.

I had joined a group from the amber conference that was hiking to a working amber mine in the island’s Halto Plano region. We walked past mango trees, friendly pigs, and a few locals who were hacking open fresh coconuts and selling them to the passing scientists. After 20 minutes, the dirt road became a meandering path, then gave way to the bush. Sweat trickled down my back, and I thought of the 5,676 different species of insects that make the island of Hispaniola their home.d1eb7d43b96a32e51f2b13b15a4670701589773924 cropped optimized

The country banned the export of raw, or unpolished, amber in 1979 in a bid to protect local artisans. A decade later, it added to the law: Amber containing insects couldn’t be exported without the consent of the National Museum of Natural History.

When the scientists and I reached the amber mine, it was marked by a red tarp propped up to offer some shade over its jagged mouth. It was little more than a hole in the ground, its sides supported by bamboo poles at each corner. Inside, 140 feet below the surface, three men were hand-drilling amber out of the surrounding rock. As we stood watching, a young man beside us walked toward a stationary motorbike whose engine was connected to a pulley. He revved the engine and the bike sprang to life, puffing out a cloud of smoke. The engine yanked the pulley, which raised a rope out of the mine—pulling up first a bucket of fist-size chunks of amber, then the workers themselves. One by one, they emerged, covered in clay, barefoot, and shirtless. They seemed surprised by the dozens of onlookers gathered in the heat of the day, and they sauntered away to talk with the owner of the mine, who was watching nearby.

After watching the shoeless men chisel more large pieces of raw amber from the mines, our group loaded onto a boat to explore a mangrove swamp. I fell into conversation with Lida Xing, an amber scientist from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing. Xing is something of a nerd superstar in China: He has more than 2.6 million followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and has published a dozen young-adult fantasy books about dinosaurs. A devoted dinosaur hunter, he has examined dinosaur tracks at more than 100 sites across China.

Since 2013, Xing has turned his attention to the tons of amber coming out of mines in Myanmar, which have yielded a dizzying array of fossils. Annual global sales of amber number in the hundreds of millions. Raw amber prices are set by the market, but the price of amber with insect inclusions is more subjective. Dealers who specialize in selling to collectors and scientists first inspect the insect and determine how unusual it is.  Amberica West, one of the biggest amber-sales websites, has seen forgeries made out of plastic, glass, casein, and copal.

“I had just been playing around in amber before Jurassic Park came along,” he says. “And suddenly I realized: I had all this amber, and I could sell it.”

It’s hard to overstate what Jurassic Park, based on Michael Crichton’s novel about a group of scientists who re-create dinosaurs from the DNA in blood sucked by a mosquito caught in Dominican amber, did for the world of amber. Prices soared, especially for Dominican amber. Amber shops in Santo Domingo still have the movie’s poster hanging over their wares.

Meanwhile, some scientists saw—and still see—Jurassic Park as a black eye on their field. David Grimaldi, the invertebrate curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, started working on new ways to analyze amber in the early 1990s. The PCR machine, invented in 1985, had allowed scientists to make millions of copies of a single sample of DNA, and PCR analysis by Grimaldi and his colleagues in 1992 indicated that there were snippets of genetic material in a termite in Dominican amber.

They published their findings in the journal Science, and the following year, the journal Nature published the results of DNA sequencing from a weevil trapped in Lebanese amber. That paper was published on the day the Jurassic Park movie came out—potentially the only time the scientific press has timed a paper’s release to a pop-culture event, Grimaldi says.

  • By the late 1990s, interest in amber began to wane.
  • The initial studies showing that amber could preserve traces of DNA weren’t replicated, and scientists eventually abandoned the genetic studies.
  • They now think that DNA degrades after about 6.8 million years, so there’s no chance of getting a full sequence based on 100-million-year-old snippets.
  • (Other reasons Jurassic Park couldn’t happen in real life: There are no known insect-bearing Jurassic ambers, and mosquitoes are incredibly rare in amber.)
  • But recently, new research into proteomics—the study of amino acids preserved in amber, including Cretaceous-era Burmese amber—is reviving interest in amber within the scientific community.

The amber mines are located in the Hukawng Valley of Kachin, Myanmar’s northernmost state (also known for other resources such as jade, gold, and wood). In local dialect, the remote jungle valley is known as the “Place of the Devil.” As Xing explained, the mines in Hukawng have existed for 100 years, but for decades they were relatively shallow. When ruby miners moved into the area from the south 10 years ago, they used their more sophisticated technology to dig deeper, and began to find new deposits of amber about 100 meters down.

War kept international investors out of the region—the area’s Kachin people have been fighting for independence from Myanmar since 1962—but during a cease-fire in the 1990s, a Canadian mining company started to work in the mines, and as scientists and jewelry makers recognized the size and age of the Burmese deposits, interest grew. Around 2010, China’s own amber mines were tapped out, and the production of Burmese amber grew. Today an estimated 10 tons of amber is taken out of Burmese mines every year.

Once Burmese amber is extracted from the mines, it’s transported—usually via elephant—over pitted paths to trucks that deliver it to markets in the south of China. The generals who control the area sometimes alert Xing when an interesting inclusion is found in the amber. And there are a stunning number of inclusions:

In 2000, only 60 total species were described from Burmese-amber deposits. In 2018 alone, 323 new species were described—the largest number in any year, from any location. Today the total number of species described from Burmese-amber deposits is around 1,200. “The sheer volume of papers coming out is absolutely impossible to keep up with,” says Andrew Ross of National Museums Scotland. “I’m hoping it’s going to level off at some point.”

For all those discoveries, though, the mines haven’t produced any new amber in two years: As the conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese government has raged on, the government has taken over the area where the mines are located, and many of the deepest ones aren’t operating. The profits from selling amber are also financing the ongoing conflict in the region, leading to more danger for local people. Xing isn’t worried about his research, though: He already has enough Burmese samples for years of analysis.

When he finished his talk, the room quieted, and I shifted in my seat, thinking about those teenagers scraping at the hot, dark, wet earth 300 feet below the surface. Then a hand shot up to ask a question: “What beetles are your dinosaur eating?”

Even if it wasn’t apparent in that room, a handful of scientists are starting to consider the human cost of buying Burmese amber. At the meeting in Santo Domingo, Grimaldi said he was starting to avoid amber from Myanmar—partly because the Chinese scientists tend to get first dibs, and partly because he knows it has been mined at great risk.

Afew weeks later,  after learning more about the Burmese mines from press reports, Grimaldi had made a clear decision. “The situation in Myanmar sounds sickening. I’m out; no more Burmese amber purchases, not if it fuels this bloodshed and violence,” he told me via email. “I will continue to work on material at hand, that’s it.” I also heard from the L.A. County Museum of Natural History scientist Brian Brown. “I am shocked and dismayed by this information, and I want nothing to do with such violence,” he wrote. “I am not buying any more Burmese amber, although I will work on the material I already have in hand.”

As soon as you start paying for something, you open up a world of questions about its true cost. Seyfullah was slightly queasy about all the wheeling and dealing she saw at the meeting. She’s a paleobotanist, and plant fossils aren’t as lucrative a market—so she hadn’t dealt with the commercial aspect of amber before. As soon as you start putting a number on the value of a scientific sample, science changes in intangible and tangible ways, as valuable specimens often end up in the hands of collectors. Seyfullah still fantasizes about a world where specimens for scientific study are freely given, but she knows that’s not likely to happen in the near future.

When Xing mentioned that the teenagers working in the mines weren’t there because they wanted to be, Seyfullah turned to her seatmate and said, “That sounds like slave labor.” “It’s kind of tacitly acknowledged in these discussions, but no one has used the word slave,” she told me. “Perhaps it’s labor that’s not free and willing, but not completely forced. It’s still not okay.” And between the lines of Xing’s talk, she heard hints of another problem: “It sounds like there’s an invisible infrastructure of people controlling the trade routes with guns, and they’re somehow getting it over the border to the markets in China.”

Seyfullah doesn’t buy these arguments. There’s also a scientific case against working with Burmese amber, despite the dizzying array of new species it contains: Since scientists haven’t studied the areas in Myanmar where the amber is being dug up, there’s no way to accurately know its age. Some researchers think the Burmese samples span at least 5 million years. “We don’t even have photographs of the layers in this region, so it’s so hard to interpret these features—you just don’t know where the inclusions fit in the Cretaceous,” Seyfullah said. Some scientists are in it just to be the “first person to describe stuff,” she said, but she wants the full picture of where the new findings exist in the broader geological history. Why were these trees secreting so much resin during these particular times? Were there rapid weather changes, or giant fires or floods?

The ethical questions are complicated by the fact that amber falls into a gray area in museum collections and export laws. In botany, a specimen must have a museum’s collection number on it to even be eligible for publication. There’s a botanical code and an animal code. Not so with amber. And in Myanmar, for example, exporting fossils without permission is illegal, but amber is classified as a gemstone.

Right now, it’s up to each museum, or each individual scientist, to decide which specimens to purchase—and there is no consensus.

At the end of the conference, the International Palaeoentomological Society chose the location for its next meeting. Representatives from Germany and China made their pitches to the members. The scientists dropped their votes into a box, one by one. The election was close—just four votes separated the two potential hosts. In the end, China won, assuring that the scientific discoveries coming out of Myanmar are enough to assuage the ethical burden of their provenance. I went home with a small sandwich baggie of amber, which I inadvertently smuggled back to Los Angeles (taking raw, non-polished amber out of the Dominican Republic is illegal), and Matthew Downen took home his four spiders, after he scrounged up the pesos to pay Jorge. Seyfullah took home her chunk of fossilized tree bark, and Xing went home with half of a lizard in Dominican amber.

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