The amber trade is ancient. Scientists presume that the trade in amber started as early as in New Stone Age.
In Amber, obtained in major excavation centers in Jutland and on eastern Baltic Coast began to spread in central Europe reaching even Egypt. Baltic amber beads were found in 3400-2400 BC pharaoh tombs in Tethys pyramid.
German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who in 1871-1890 excavated Troy in addition to other artifacts found amber beads. Scientists established that they were made from amber that had been brought from the Baltic Coast in 3000 BC. This archaeologist has found Baltic amber also in cupola tombs of Mycenaean culture built on Crete Island in 1600-800 BC.
In the 1st - 3rd centuries there was an intensive trade in amber with Roman Empire and its colonies and this led to the formation of so called "amber road". Amber was treasured and called "northern gold" in Greece and in the Roman Empire. In times of the Emperor Nero (54-68 AD) the value of a small amber statuette was greater than that of a young healthy slave. Transparent reddish or golden amber was especially valuable and was used in manufacture of adornments and small implements and utensils. Opaque amber was used only in the manufacture of incenses. Pliny the Elder in his work "Naturalis Historia" describes those times and tells a story about one Roman rider who managed to bring the quantity of amber with which it was possible to decorate not only an amphitheatre but also gladiators' clothes and arms. The biggest piece weighed over 4 kg. Amber destined for the Roman Empire was stored in intermediate points. Three such warehouses with 3 tons of amber have been found in the neighborhood of Wroclaw.
At around the end of the 3rd century new trade roads to the East by the Dnieper, Dniester and Prut Rivers have been found and relations with Slavic settlements, Roman colonies on the coast of the Black Sea and later with the Byzantine Empire and Arab countries established.
In the 12th century crusaders began their attacks on the Baltic Coast settlements with the time monopolized amber excavation and most of amber processing and trade.
Under 1264 agreement with the Sambian Archbishop all lands rich in amber were given to the Order of the Knights of the Cross, and the Archbishop received one third of gathered amber. Local inhabitants who gathered and traded in amber for centuries lost this right. By the Order's regalia all obtained amber had to be given to designated officers and there were huge fines for trying to hide even smallest quantities of amber. As early as the beginning of the 19th century an executioner in Konigsberg was employed whose duty was to execute death penalties for willful collecting of amber.
The 1990s passed under the banner of intensive mining of raw amber. Each year, the conglomerate in Yantarny on the western coast of the Sambia Peninsula in the Kaliningrad Zone of the Russian Federation increased its output, thanks to the plentiful saturation with amber (up to 6 kg per 1 m3) of the "blue earth" layer in the Plazhova (Beach) strip mine. Until recently this small and shallow strip mine produced about 70% of the global supply of raw amber. Unfortunately, the mine was flooded in 2001. Now the Russian conglomerate has only a single mine with an output that is three times lower, while being very expensive to operate, because the mining work has to take place over 55 meters below ground level.
The Russians have severely limited both legal and illegal exploitation of other shallow deposits in Sambia and thus the supply of amber from this richest of areas dropped from about 1000 tons per annum in 1996 to about 190 tons in 2004.
A dozen or so years ago, an important role in the shaping of the market for the raw material was played by the significant stock left over from the amber product factory in Ribnitz-Damgarten in Mecklemburg, which operated during the times of the GDR. Made from the raw material extracted from the Goitsche Mine in Saxony, amber and its semi-products was gradually sold until 2003.
An even greater role was played by the spontaneous rush to exploit illicitly the rich and very shallow Ukrainian amber deposits on the Volyhn-Polesie border. These deposits had been documented by geological research in the early 1980s, which was a certain surprise for the global amber economy. A large marshy area, covered with sparse forests, covers beautiful varieties of Baltic amber with an uncommonly large granulation, very much in demand in the jewelry industry. Amber usually occurs here at a depth of 0.5 to 2 meters, which allows its extraction using the simplest of tools, and the illegal diggers are very difficult to catch under the cover of the forest. The legal exploitation of these deposits somehow cannot get beyond the experimental stage and it is still far from the result obtained by the Germans in Goitsche Mine (about 50 tones per annum), although a state-owned mining and processing conglomerate has been established. Thousands of small digger teams will surely obtain a result which is twice as great, as can be surmised considering the large share of the characteristic Ukrainian amber in the supply of Polish and Lithuanian studios. This share (in contrast to that of Russian amber) is constantly growing.
Significant fluctuation, in turn, has taken place in the intensity of the use of the amber deposits in the mining beaches in the Vistula River Delta. In the first half of the 1990s, rapidly growing amber processing led to the rise of numerous teams which used the hydraulic method of rinsing amber out from under the sediment layers and a number of others sought licenses for exploring and extracting. However, it soon became apparent that given the strict Polish environmental protection regulations, the costs of mining were much higher than the prices offered by the suppliers from Russia and the Ukraine for raw material specially selected for jewelry production. This was the reason for limiting amber mining in the Vistula River Delta in spite of its unique natural beauty. Only studios which focus on exclusive jewelry, and use only fully natural stones, without any thermal improvement processes, were ready to pay prices twice as high as those for the material from the mines.
Following the flooding of the Plazhova Mine in Yantarny (2001), when the prices of raw amber began to double each year, there was renewed interest in obtaining licenses in the Vistula River Delta area and unfortunately also a rise in illegal extraction in seaside forests.
The licensed attempts to mine amber from the floor of the Gulf of Gdansk had no practical market impact. Two serious companies worked on this in 2003 and 2004 using two different methods of silting up the gulf floor (with compressed air and with a jet of water under high pressure).
In summary, it is worth noting that raw amber mining, which was at record highs in the 1990s at a level of 900 to 1100 tones per annum, dropped in 2004 to about 300 tones. This has not yet led to any crisis in the processing industry because most of the jewelry firms managed to build considerable material stocks in the previous years. Furthermore, fashion trends have led to the withdrawal of the most material-consuming products (large necklaces, bracelets, statuettes and interior decoration components) and their replacement with sophisticated gold and silver jewelry with finely crafted amber gemstones.
However, in Poland, which is the main supplier of ready-made amber products to the global market, we can see quite a steep drop in the material stocks at a rate of 40-50 tones per annum, and the current stocks remain at the threshold of the minimum level.