History of the IAA Laboratory
Gabriela Gierłowska, Ewa Wagner-Wysiecka
The IAA Amber Laboratory: A Journey through 25 years of the International Amber Association
The article comes from the 45th issue of the Bursztynisko. The Amber Magazines (page 54)
The presence of the International Amber Association’s Amber Laboratory now seems almost self-evident, as a fundamental and inseparable component of the structure of our Association. The 25th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to look back on how the Amber Laboratory was established and evolved, not only as an entity in charge of Baltic amber identification but also one that fulfils an educational mission.
Today, from the perspective of the twenty-five years that have passed since the Amber Association was first established, it seems that “An impulse for people interested in amber to associate was given by the International Amber Fair. . . . From the beginning, not only manufacturers and buyers were encouraged to participate but also the people of science and art, as well as collectors. This influenced the goals of the association which was being established and the line-up of its founding committee. The founding members of the new association represented all the specialities connected with the business and science of amber. Among them, there were owners of mining, processing and wholesale/retail companies, celebrated amber scholars whose specialities ranged from geology and biology to art history, along with experienced artists and artisans with a significant oeuvre and standing in their community.” (W. Gierłowski 2016)
The Founding Meeting of the Amber Association was held on 27 February 1996 on the initiative of the Amberif trade fair consultants: Tadeusz Befinger, Gedymin Jabłoński, Stanisław Krzysztof Jacobson, Wiesław Gierłowski, Norbert Nagel, and Amberif Project Director Ewa Rachoń. Modestly but with great enthusiasm, the Association exhibited for the first time at Amberif 1996, where the founding members provided information on the goals of the newly established organisation and how to join it. Since then, the Association has participated in every Amber Fair held by the MTG SA Gdańsk International Fair Co.
Amber simulants (imitations) and its substitutes have always caused anxiety among manufacturers. In recognition of the problem, the first Board of the Association appointed the Expert Qualification Committee and, in the following year, delegated its experts to the Association’s stand at Amberif. These were people with significant professional achievements in amber-related areas, in both practical and scientific terms. They shared what they knew about amber. They explained the issues related to amber, its simulants and fakes, which troubled the fair’s buyers, exhibitors and visitors. They provided information about amber’s properties and how to recognise natural Baltic amber.
Also since the beginning of the amber fair, “. . . the exhibitors have been able to confront their professional know-how with scientific research at Amberif seminars.”
“Some seminar papers were the first ever presentations of important scientific discoveries and inventions. The report by Prof. Alfred Golloch of Duisburg about the device which he constructed for quick and reliable identification of Baltic amber, other fossil resins and fakes, without damaging the tested substance, was especially prominent” (E. Rachoń 1998, A. Golloch 2005), as it gave rise to great hopes among amber experts.
The experts worked actively with Amberif. In 1998, they called for a ban on displaying fake amber to be introduced into the event’s regulations.
At the next amber fair, at the Association’s stand, the experts presented and recommended classification systems, which were to prevent arbitrariness in trade and to organise and standardise the commercial documentation of raw amber, bearing in mind the very diverse structure of natural amber that determines its workability, along with Classification—Terminology of Baltic amber gemstones, which was developed in collaboration with the SRJ Association of Jewellery Experts.
“In the discussion, the owners of manufacturing and trading companies expressed their greatest concerns as to the obligation to inform the customers about improvement, i.e. artificially introduced changes to the clarity and colour of amber.” However, “The majority of the Qualification Committee (75% of the votes) were of the opinion that a reliably described scope of the treatment performed gives a greater probability of gaining customers’ trust even in the long run. This is a value in itself, with the benefits of gaining the reputation of a reliable Polish manufacturer definitely outweighing any immediate sales success.” (W. Gierłowski 2000)
By working together, both Amberif, with its new autumn edition, Ambermart, launched in 2000, and the Amber Association, which from then on ran an independent stand—the Amber Laboratory—under the supervision of Wiesław Gierłowski, kept growing.
The Mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, who sponsored the initiatives, wrote in the introduction to this fair’s exhibitor directory: “the services of the Amber Laboratory will significantly enhance the Ambermart programme and will contribute to the enrichment of knowledge about the possibilities of using the solidified resin, endowed with so many amazing properties.”
Equipped with specialist literature, optical and measuring instruments, the Amber Laboratory at that fair sparked interest in everyone: buyers, exhibitors and especially visitors, with the dominant questions being: “how to tell Baltic amber from its imitations, how to avoid fakes.”
So at the next spring fair (2001), the seminar was largely dedicated to amber imitations. Highly reputed scholars with recognised scientific achievements took the floor: Prof. Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz (2001) presented a paper on fake amber and Prof. Ryszard Szadziewski (2001) one on fake inclusions in Baltic amber. Additionally, at the Laboratory’s stand, experts of the Association, Anna Klucznik and Gabriela Gierłowska, prepared a presentation of amber gemstones and products to illustrate the Classification and Terminology of Amber Gemstones, while Prof. Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz demonstrated amber simulants from the collection of the Museum of the Earth, Warsaw. At the stand, we hosted amber professionals and researchers invited to work together: the already mentioned Prof. Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz from the Museum of the Earth, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Professors Brygida and Günter Krumbiegel from the University of Halle, amber researcher Dr Aniela Matuszewska from the University of Silesia, Dr J. Kupryjanowicz, a zoologist from Białystok; all of them, alongside the Association’s amber experts and the late inż. Roman Łysoń, were available to participants throughout the trade fair’s duration. Both amber and simulant reference samples proved to be very helpful in identifying imitations and fakes—from then on, they have been present at each subsequent fair.
The efforts of the experts and professionals, who were members of the International Amber Association and organised the Amber Laboratory, gained recognition, with the Mayor of Gdańsk Paweł Adamowicz writing in the Ambermart 2001 exhibitor directory: “The high professional standing of the current event is evidenced by the fact that the Amber Laboratory will be operating throughout its duration to verify and identify the amber purchased at the fair.”
The Amber Fairs were gaining in importance, becoming a festival of amber and the amber industry owing to the entire amber community: all jewellery-related organisations.
At a show held at Amberif, the Board of the Amber Association honoured Prof. Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz and the amber artist and art historian Wiesław Gierłowski with the title of Amber Personality of the Century by ceremoniously presenting them with statuettes that depicted the beauty and nature of amber. When celebrating his 90th birthday (2015) at the Gdańsk Amber Museum, Wiesław Gierłowski donated his statuette to the Museum’s collection.
Having found its place at the amber fairs, the Amber Laboratory kept expanding its services. At its stand, experts held shows of the brine method, with amber floating in brine while amber imitations sank; a hot needle scent test was performed, along with a solvent test; the differences in internal cracks, known as sparkles, were explored; there was an opportunity to test amber’s hardness by scratching the surface of the tested materials. Throughout, they were supported by University of Silesia researchers: Dr hab. Aniela Matuszewska, Dr Roman Wrzalik and Dr Andrzej Hacura.
To fulfil its role as an educator, the Amber Laboratory delivered factual exhibitions at the subsequent fairs, including an exhibition of raw Baltic amber specimens from fossil beaches in the vicinity of Gdańsk, Poland, from a productive mine in Sambia, Kaliningrad Oblast from Ukraine, and from the vicinity of Bitterfeld, Germany, providing an opportunity to learn about the typical features of raw amber and extraction methods in the deposits currently under production.
The products of the dry distillation of amber were shown to demonstrate crystalline succinic acid (one of amber identifiers), succinic oil and solid rosin, along with a description of the distillation process and distillation apparatus according to Bescherer, 1836.
A gift from Dr Günter Krumbiegel to the Archaeology Museum, Gdańsk, was put on display: 10 specimens discovered and purchased by him, coming from the collection of O. Helm (1826–1902), a pharmacist and member of the Gdańsk (Danzig) City Council. It was a fragment of the old Gdańsk amber collection from the West Prussian Provincial Museum, Danzig. In this way, it became possible to learn about the storage method and the state of preservation of samples of raw Baltic amber and other natural resins from over a hundred years ago.
The healthful properties of amber have generated interest for centuries. Therefore, to address the demand for this subject, the experts held an exhibition on Amber at the Pharmacy, at Amberif 2003, inviting researchers interested in the subject of amber in medicine and pharmacists from the History Section of the Polish Pharmaceutical Society in Gdańsk, who shared their knowledge and answered multiple questions. The exhibition showed examples of amber-related drugs and pharmacy products.
An exhibition to present the Classification of Raw Baltic Amber was produced for Amberif 2009. Examples of raw amber forms were showcased: barrel-shaped, plates, drops, icicles, irregular forms. There were pieces demonstrating amber’s structure: solid, layered; transparency: transparent, translucent and opaque; impurities: small inclusions, impure and porous amber. Also prefabricated raw amber: hewn, pieces cleared of crust in grinders, sanded, subject to thermal treatment, treated in an autoclave, amber pieces pressed to form cabochons, beads and other shapes.
At the next fair (2012), an exhibition of pressed amber jewellery components and products was available for viewing at the Amber Laboratory. Examples of amber pressing methods significant for the market, based on both patents and applied technologies, were displayed: items made from amber powder or finely granulated pieces, from larger multicoloured pieces with the addition of young amber, pressed at a relatively low temperature known as spotted amber; pressed, then treated, with sparkles, dyed. Pressed amber specimens were available as variously shaped pieces, various forms of gemstones, along with many complete products: necklaces, brooches, earrings, rings, bracelets, Muslim prayer beads, figurines and sculptures.
In order to guarantee the safest possible purchase of the highest quality raw amber to the buyers, next to the Amber Laboratory, the Management Board of the MTG SA Gdańsk International Fair Co. established an Expert Commission for Amber Inspection at the fairs. The task of the Commission was to inspect the stands, check the quality of the amber products offered there and disclose companies which offered products that did not comply with the regulations, e.g. unlabelled pressed amber or imitations.
The Commission worked with the Amber Laboratory, where literature related to amber and its simulants was available, along with an exhibition of reference samples that was expanded every year. Professionals, experts and amber enthusiasts from both Poland and around the world met there. Inspiring discussions took place, about which Prof. Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz wrote: “. . . a discussion forum for the researchers of amber’s properties, without which the Gdańsk Fair would be practically unimaginable.”
Emphasis on good commercial practices and inspections of compliance with the rules at the trade fairs assisted the buyers in safely carrying out satisfying transactions. Additionally, the opportunity to talk without constraints at the Amber Laboratory with independent experts about the purchases they made strengthened the buyers’ belief that the purchased goods were of good quality, in line with their expectations.
The beginning of the twenty-first century was a period in which no other amber trade show in the world could boast of creating such an opportunity for buyers: an Amber Laboratory operating at the fair, where they received assessments of the purchased products from independent experts. Therefore, buyers became eager to visit the Gdańsk-based fairs, which largely contributed to their gaining the leading role, with Baltic amber products taking a dominant position in the global market.
Both the experts of the Expert Qualification Committee and the Board of the Amber Association watched with concern as more and more perfect amber substitutes appeared in the global amber markets. This led to Dr Małgorzata Kucharska, the author of a doctoral thesis entitled Selected issues of the chemistry and technology of Baltic amber (supervisor: doc. Dr hab. Aleksander Kwiatkowski), being entrusted with the task of determining the possibility of collaboration with her parent department—the Gdańsk University of Technology’s Faculty of Chemistry—in terms of receiving science and research support in identifying amber substitutes. One can say that the-then Dean of the Faculty of Chemistry, and subsequently the Rector of the Gdańsk University of Technology, the late Prof. Dr hab. inż. Jacek Namieśnik, put the International Amber Association in collaboration with the Gdańsk University of Technology’s Faculty of Chemistry, pointing to the Department of Chemical Technology (now the Department of Chemistry and Technology of Functional Materials) headed at the time by Prof. Dr hab. Jan F. Biernat. The co-author of this article, Ewa Wagner-Wysiecka, comes from the professor’s team and, in this way, as a chemist since 2006 and later also as an IAA Expert, she has continued the collaboration that began at the time. In a 2006 issue of Bursztynisko, the IAA Board informed “. . . about the possibility of testing amber pieces using . . . [s]pectroscopy . . . at the Chemical Faculty of the Gdańsk University of Technology” and that “. . . [the] Association signed an agreement with the Gdańsk University of Technology for performing such analyses.” This was undoubtedly an important point in the formative process of the IAA Amber Laboratory. Instrumental analysis and identification of Baltic amber and amber products would be carried out using mid-infrared spectroscopy in Gdańsk, at the Gdańsk University of Technology, Faculty of Chemistry, at that time the only centre which performed such analyses in this part of Poland’s Seaboard. In 2014, owing to Ewa Wagner-Wysiecka, another person from the GUT Faculty of Chemistry, Dr inż. Natalia Łukasik, joined the team, followed in 2019 by mgr inż. Paulina Szulc.
Since then, due to the efforts of the Management Board of the MTG SA Gdańsk International Fair Co., and especially those of the Project Director of Amberif and Ambermart Ewa Rachoń, the Amber Laboratory stand, which was run by the Amber Association’s experts: Wiesław Gierłowski, Prof. Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz, Gabriela Gierłowska, Jacek Ożdżeński and the late Józef Nierzwicki, was occasionally joined by Janusz Dudnik, Krzysztof Jacobson, Radosław Kazimierczak, Anna Klucznik, Leszek Krause, Małgorzata Kucharska, Jacek Serafin and Jacek Leśniak, who all provided professional support. The work at the stand was also supported by Dr hab. inż. Ewa Wagner-Wysiecka from the Gdańsk University of Technology’s Faculty of Chemistry, who, in difficult and ambiguous cases, took samples and conducted tests on them at the GUT Faculty of Chemistry. Because it was possible to obtain a free expert opinion at the fairs, products from all over the world—other natural resins and combined imitations—were brought to the subsequent fairs to be tested at the Amber Laboratory in expectation of a detailed assessment: a specification of the type of resin which they were made of. It was a time of extremely constructive discussions, in a wide international group, on the possibilities but also on a necessity to reliably identify not only Baltic amber and its simulants but also other resins of the world.
The Amber Laboratory at Amberif and Ambermart also provided an opportunity to make use of the specimen display of amber and its simulants. There, the correctly described specimens, which illustrated the applicable Classifications: of Baltic amber, varieties of fossil resins and products made of them, imitations, along with systematised terminology, made it possible to easily define their features. In this way, the displays had not only a popularising and educational but also a scientific function—as a collection of documented reference materials of known origin that constituted the basis for reliable identification. This applies to Baltic amber, where natural Baltic amber, only cut and polished, was shown in its beautiful colour varieties. There were natural amber necklaces of varying degrees of transparency and various bead shapes. Treated amber was displayed, subject to treatment which changed its properties. There was pressed amber obtained from fine pieces or even amber dust, in pressed items, gemstones, products and sculptures alike.
Dyed amber available in the market—green, red, blue, aged amber and more—was also showcased. The Amber Laboratory provided an opportunity to learn about new resins and simulants appearing in the market, ignorance of which could have negative consequences for the industry, e.g. natural subfossil resin, copal, was presented in the form of a raw material which had undergone hardening processes to demonstrate its successive stages and products, made of natural, pressed or dyed copal.
The exhibition of amber imitations from Gabriela Gierłowska’s collection, which currently includes nearly 600 specimens, illustrated the variety of imitations that pose a real threat to demand as they are more and more perfect, made as combinations of various resins, including natural ones, and turn up in markets around the world. Most such imitations are not easy to tell from amber so experienced experts are required for the task, i.e. amber experts who use reference samples and specialised equipment.
The exhibition generated keen interest from the visiting amber researchers, buyers who wanted to find out about new imitations present in the market and exhibitors who explained the properties of amber to their customers at the display cases; it provided a demonstrative component, including for the training courses and seminars held at the fairs.
In this way, for many years, the IAA Amber Laboratory practically existed only in the trade fair period, which was reason for certain dissatisfaction in the amber community. A new perspective came in 2015, when the Association became able to spread its wings by leasing premises at 1 Warzywnicza Street, Gdańsk, where it operates to this day. Next to office space, the premises also include space allocated to the IAA Gallery. It was also a point when the vision of the Amber Laboratory, which had existed since the beginning of the Association, as we would say today, in virtual space, was able to crystallise in a material form with the strength and know-how of the experts. Owing to the commitment of the-then staff of the Association, Michał Kosior and Agnieszka Klikowicz-Kosior, significant financial support from the Gdańsk Foundation resulting from the efforts of Ryszard Uliński, and the grassroots activity of the members of the International Amber Association, the Amber Laboratory (see Bursztynisko 38/2016) acquired an essential tool for quality-based resin analysis: a mid-IR spectrophotometer.
The laboratory was equipped with professional microscopes owing to the generosity of Janusz Fudala , Roman Formella and Krzysztof Jacobson—here also with a professional UV lighting system. It became necessary to establish a photo studio, also for the purposes of certification; again, initially and for a long time thanks to the equipment provided temporarily by IAA members Marcin Buzalski and Dorota Cenecka.
Based on Baltic amber identification and the description formats developed over the years by IAA Experts, the experience of Prof. Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz of the Museum of the Earth, Warsaw, and on-site support in Gdańsk from Dr hab. inż. Ewa Wagner-Wysiecka (Faculty of Chemistry, GUT), a certification system for products containing Baltic amber and for amber components was successfully put in place and is still in use today [https://www.amber.org.pl/laboratorium].
The system is also based on many years of collaboration on identifying inclusions with the researchers of the Faculty of Biology, University of Gdańsk: Prof. Dr hab. Ryszard Szadziewski, Dr hab. Jacek Szwedo, Dr Elżbieta Sontag.
As a mobile unit (Kosior 2018), the IAA Amber Laboratory demonstrated its capabilities many times not only at the Gdańsk-based fairs but also at other events held in Poland, such as GoldExpo, Warsaw, and Jubinale, Cracow. It was also featured at one of the largest jewellery shows in the world, China International Jewellery Fair (CIJF) in Beijing (e.g. 2017), where the International Amber Association organised a Polish pavilion for several years [https://innowacje.newseria.pl/biuro-prasowe/firma/gdaskie-laboratorium,b314796117]. Another example of the IAA Amber Laboratory’s promotion in the international arena was the September Hong Kong Jewellery and Gem Fair 2018. The stand of the International Amber Association provided an opportunity to present both the Laboratory and the certification system [https://fashion.trade.gov.pl/pl/aktualnosci/284754,polskie-stoisko-narodowe-na-targach-ubm-september-hong-kong-jewellery-gem-fair.html].
After it was no longer possible to use the rented equipment, in 2020, owing to the professional support and commitment of the long-term active member of the IAA, artist Lech Zdrojewski, and Kinga Keenys Giełdon, the Laboratory was equipped with a new professional photographic studio, making it possible to take photographs not only on a macro but also on a micro scale—by launching and using the full capabilities of a microscope previously provided to the IAA. In 2020, the group of experts was joined by Małgorzata Siudak, who currently looks after the laboratory at the head office at 1 Warzywnicza St., Gdańsk, under the scientific supervision of Ewa Wagner-Wysiecka and with support from Dr Małgorzata Kucharska. The current efficiency of the Laboratory’s operation is ensured by the professionalism of the current IAA Office Manager, Aleksandra Harasiuk.
It is worth noting that in 2020, a difficult year for everyone due to the raging SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, after its activities were suspended in 2007, the Expert Committee was reactivated (in alphabetical order): Stanisław Krzysztof Jacobson, Gabriela Gierłowska, Mariusz Gliwiński, Małgorzata Kucharska—secretary, Jacek Szwedo and Ewa Wagner-Wysiecka—chairperson. The reactivation of this body will certainly have an impact on the further growth of the IAA Amber Laboratory.
Importantly, the IAA Laboratory’s competences are not just about certification. The know-how, skills and experience of the interdisciplinary team of Experts, both practitioners and scholars engaged in the research on amber and the world’s resins to a varying degree and scope, along with related issues in their broad sense, make it possible to provide expert opinions on natural specimens and items of cultural and historical significance made not only from Baltic amber but also from other resins of the world, widespread and circulating in the jewellery and collector’s market, including the plant and animal inclusions found in them. Matters related to materials science, so important in the case of simulants and potential fakes, are also resolved. This is the wide range of opportunities provided by the International Amber Association’s Amber Laboratory, which exists because of the expertise and skills of its experienced Experts. The IAA Amber Laboratory is a special, one-of-a-kind marriage of good practices in amber product manufacture and science.
But there would be no Laboratory if it wasn’t for the amber community. It is because of the amber artists and artisans who use the Laboratory’s services that we can support each other and grow—also through constructive discussions. The laboratory is there for the amber community but it is to serve not just by providing certification services. The intention is for the current activity of the Laboratory to take all and any opportunities for mutual interaction and collaboration, which is how Baltic amber will grow in strength, also bearing witness to good and honest amber practices stemming from and inseparably connected with the tradition and history of beautiful Gdańsk, The World Capital of Amber.