Recently our family had the opportunity to visit our Baltic amber supplier in Lithuania! :) She took us to meet with her uncle who is one of the many Baltic amber 'Masters' in Lithuania. These masters are the stewards of the knowledge of how to work with Baltic amber, a craft that is handed-down from generation to generation (Amber is quite fragile and requires a great deal of practice / skill to transform it into jewelry and other objects.).
We got to visit his workshop and he walked us through the processes that the type of beads we use go through, as well as much larger pieces in all kinds of projects (making faceted amber for precious jewelry, using amber with inclusions such as bugs to make statement pieces, etc.). And yes we took pictures. :)
Here are our three kids, learning from the amber Master:
It was such a privilege to get to watch and we discovered that making even our simple beads turned out to be more intensive than we had previously understood or even imagined! Here's how it works...
The first step is receiving the raw, loose amber from the mines near the Baltic Sea:
This raw amber is then rough-cut by hand using a sort of snipping tool:
This produces a rough-cut shape (every bead is done by hand like this!):
This is further cut and rounded using a spinning blade, sort of like a small table saw:
In shaping step number two, the bead is pressed against a grinding disk to sand down the rough edges:
You then end up with a faceted looking stone that must be smoothed so that it's not too rough to wear on the skin:
Then it's on to the polishing steps. As you may or may not know, all of our amber jewelry comes with one of two polishes: Full or Semi (which some people call 'raw'). We prefer the term semi-polished to 'raw' because all amber beads are rounded in part by a polishing process (versus being 100% raw from the mine the way the first picture on this page shows).
There are a few potential polishing steps. First, all of the beads tumble around in a water & ceramic polishing drum:
Then the beads are put through a second semi-polishing step in a water & acrylic bead polishing drum:
Alternatively, they can use this centrifugal drum to preserve bean shaped amber beads (which would become more rounded in the other polishing drums):
For the 'semi-polish' beads the process stops after the two polishing steps described above.
If it's a 'full-polish' bead (with more of a mirror finish), then each bead is further polished and buffed by hand on this machine (here's one of our kids trying it out, it's harder than it looks!):
Finally, this machine is used to pierce a hole through the center so it can be strung and made into necklaces and bracelets:
If the amber is supposed to be 95% round, they can then use this machine to get an extremely fine shape (note the concave shaped grinding surface):
And that's the process! Here are some completed beads:
*The beads pictured above happen to be the 95% round kind. Most of our jewelry is made with beads that are left a lot more lumpy (read: affordable) called 'baroque' beads. As you can see, making each bead round by hand is pretty labor intensive. That's why chip style necklaces are much cheaper, there being a lot less shaping steps involved.
You may have noticed that most of the beads pictured above are sort of a lemon color. That's because amber only comes out of the ground in three colors: Milk & Butter (opaque), Lemon (clear), or Dark Green (with flecks). To achieve the other colors such as Honey, Dark Cognac, or Dark Cherry, the lemon amber has to be treated by heat and / or pressure. This may help explain why darker colored amber is a little less effective in reducing pain: the heat / pressure may affect the chemical structure of the naturally occurring succinic acid in the amber, rendering it a bit less potent.
Here is the machine they use to treat the amber with pressure:
And the oven they use to gently heat the amber (yes that's a totally normal kitchen oven inside a fancy heat-shield):
The pressure and heating steps (if used at all) may actually take place first, considering the variety of colors in the pic of the raw amber at the top of this page, as opposed to altering the color at the end of the process.
After all this, the completed amber beads and other necessary materials (string, clasps, etc.) are distributed to a small army of women who work part time from home (moms, etc.) to construct the teething jewelry in their spare time. We didn't get to visit any of them at home to see this step in person but we did get to meet one.
Overall the trip was a wonderful experience for our family and we were so excited to meet our supplier's family, spend time with them, and for our kids to play together. :)
Because we have such a close and trusted relationship with our Baltic Amber supplier in Lithuania, you can rest assured that any piece of Baltic Amber jewelry you purchase from us at Hazelaid is completely authentic and genuine, and has been made with care. You're also helping to support women (many of them mothers) provide for their families with work that they can do from home and in their free time.
Want to see the finished product? Visit one of our Baltic amber collections:
STILL have unanswered questions? Please write us!