International demand means amber jewellery is now worth more than gold, says auctioneer Liz Winnicott
Highly prized and traded for centuries, amber has long been admired for its colour and beauty. This wholly-organic material, dating to before the Ice Age, comes from an extinct species of trees which fell and were carried by rivers to coastal regions. Millions of years later, the sticky resin exuded from these trees hardened, forming what we now know as amber. Its main source is the Baltic coast of Russia, but the most valuable was mined from northern Burma (now Myanmar) up until the mid-twentieth century. Amber has been carved or worked into jewellery and objets d’art for centuries, some dating as far back as 11,000BC. The Aztecs and Mayans believed in its healing powers and ground it to a powder to burn as incense. However, towards the end of what is considered the golden age of amber craft, a spectacular amber panelled banquet room was created in the Berlin Palace for King Frederick I of Prussia in 1712. On a smaller scale, by the turn of the 20th century, long strings of highly polished, sometimes carved and preferably clear amber beads became popular, worn by aesthetic ladies in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods. Amber-mounted cigarette holders and cigar cases were also fashionable and have survived in their quantities to this day. Yet it is beads which seem to be attracting the most attention at auction now and not just as items of jewellery.
The clue lies in the English word ‘bead’, which is derived from the Anglo Saxon bidden (to pray) and bede (prayer). Strings of beads, including those made from amber, are used by more than two-thirds of the world’s population. Christians, Hindus and Buddhists all use them to help count or recite specific prayers, particularly in China, Korea, Japan and Tibet. Today, these beads have captured the eyes of the emerging economies of China, India and the Middle East. There are many imitations available, made from bakelite, epoxy resins, celluloid and coloured glass. However the highest prices are paid for natural amber and not necessarily for the previously popular clear beads. The less translucent, almost milky ones, known as ‘egg yolk’ or ‘butterscotch’ are the most highly prized, selling for as much as £11,000 for a single row. Less rare strings can make between £500 and £1,000 at auction with size, colour and number of beads all affecting their final value. A set of beads sold at auction in 2014 for £22,000, achieving a staggering £72 per gram – more than three times the market value of 22ct gold!