Forty million years ago a group of ants sat on a tree trunk watching another ant at work. A drop of sap welled over them; the rest is palaeontology.
The ants’ story has come alive in Poland where a pendant featuring the Tertiary Period work scene is one of the main attractions of Amberif, the annual amber trade fair. In the past five years, amid soaring interest from China, the gram price of amber has overtaken that of gold. But now there are fears the Chinese economic downturn is about to impose an ice age chill on the sector.
Amber jeweller Andrzej Wiszniewski, who has been in the trade for 20 years, said: “Amber prices have increased between 800% and 1,000% in the past five years due to Chinese interest. We do not know what is going to happen next. It makes it difficult and risky to plan ahead.”
Buyer Huoyan Yan of China Amber Market – which has more than 150 outlets in China – sounded a reassuring note: “Chinese people will always love amber. The Ming dynasty prized amber and, today, Chinese people still believe it brings luck and good health. The price has soared and will probably fall gently, like a car going at high speed that takes time to stop.”
At Amberif, deals are struck in euros or dollars, cash. The organisers will not reveal the estimated turnover of the four-day fair because “we do not want an armed robbery”, says spokeswoman Ewa Rachoń.
Much of the chatter in the alleyways of the fair is in Chinese. Gdańsk’s shipyard employed 17,000 people when the Solidarity trade union was born in this northern Polish port in 1980. Only 1,000 people still have jobs at the yard. But amber, which is fished in nets on the Baltic shore – a pre-ice age pine forest – has saved the city. Two decades ago the resin had the image of a low-value tourist trinket. Now it provides an estimated 10,000 jobs, says Rachoń. Amber is also extracted commercially in the Baltic states, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and in Ukraine.
The boom has also brought criminality. The war in Ukraine has pushed new – and not always professional – individuals into the trade. Last Wednesday, at the Dorohusk border post with Ukraine, Polish customs seized a record 1.5 tonnes of amber, including some rough rocks the size of ostrich eggs. The Polish authorities estimate the seized amber is worth an estimated €6m. A Polish lorry driver and his Ukrainian co-driver were arrested.
Among buyers at Amberif are small-scale cutters and traders, including Arben Rolaj, 38, who has driven 1,200 miles to Gdańsk from Kosovo. “People buy it as an investment in Albania, just as they would buy gold,” said Rolaj.
“The amber market has always been subject to fluctuations,” said Wiszniewski, whose company is based in Bialystok, in eastern Poland. “In 1990 Russia opened the rough market at Kaliningrad. The demise of the monopoly led to the price falling by 70%. Then, five years ago, came the Chinese phenomenon.” Chinese buyers, he says, like the deep cherry coloured amber they call mila and the white amber, baimi.
The Gdańsk trade fair attracts a broad range of buyers, including jewellery wholesalers and department stores looking for new designers. Amber has also spawned its own beauty industry – facial creams and washes – as many people believe amber acid has medicinal qualities.
Gemologists also come to the Gdańsk fair looking for rocks with rare inclusions. Marta Siemionko, whose Gdańsk-based jeweller husband, Marcin Wesołowski, discovered the ants in a rock he was about to work on in November, said the pendant he has made is on sale for at least €1m. She said: “This is like a precious diamond; you do not find two Cullinans in a century. It was real luck that we cut it in such a way that we did not destroy the inclusion. We initially counted 14 ants. When we took it to the specialists at Gdańsk University they said there were 20 of them.”
She said Chinese buyers “love inclusions” but that she would not mind if no buyer came forward. The family firm, NAC Jewellery, would then probably donate it to Gdańsk’s amber museum.
“We have mixed feeling about the Chinese dominance of the market. They became interested in amber after their jade became exhausted, and things have just gone mad.
“The Chinese started going straight to our suppliers and this is what prompted the speculation to begin. The high price also makes the raw material more expensive for us. Chinese design tastes are different from ours. This means many designers may change their approach just to suit that market. It is a mixed blessing,” she said.
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