Dateline: Gdansk

The Amberif trade fair shines an international light on Baltic amber and the Polish companies that turn this prehistoric tree resin into fashionable and artistic jewelry.

Anyone who thinks amber jewelry is limited by traditional designs and worn largely by older women would have left those thoughts behind within minutes of attending Amberif, the International Fair of Amber Jewellery and Gemstones.

Held March 14–18 at the Gdansk International Fair Co./MTG SA Exhibition Centre, in Gdansk, Poland, Amberif is the world’s largest showcase for the prehistoric tree resin (which dates back about 40 million years) and its byproducts. More than 6,500 jewelry industry professionals, scientists, and gemologists from 40 countries visited more than 480 exhibitors, including 71 foreign companies from 14 countries, according to show organizers. The final day, for the first time in the fair’s 14-year history, was open to the public and 2,600 tickets were sold.

Ewa Rachon founded the trade fair in 1994 and serves as its executive manager. Before the fair was established, people who wanted to buy amber jewelry in Poland had to visit individual companies and the homes of amber jewelry makers. Rachon says she recognized the need to bring the jewelry makers and buyers together in one place. The first fair had 49 exhibitors. The following year, the number of exhibitors doubled. “When the idea of organizing the fair came about we were not sure if it would work, but promoting treasures from your own region sounded like a very interesting challenge,” Rachon says. “From the beginning the interest of international buyers was beyond expectation.”

The fair has grown over the years. It now showcases a breadth of products including gold jewelry, pearls, gemstones, diamonds, and technical equipment. But its primary focus remains Baltic amber and the Polish designers and manufacturers who turn it into wearable art. Amber exhibitors make up nearly half of all exhibitors, and one building, the Amber Hall, is dedicated to amber and amber jewelry. Other exhibitors are located in a second building, the Gold Hall, and equipment providers exhibit in the Technical Pavilion, attached to the Gold Hall.

Polish amber officials say that up to 90 percent of the world’s amber jewelry comes from Poland and that 90 percent of Polish-made amber jewelry is exported. The largest markets are the United States, Germany, and Japan. Total annual output amounts to about a half-billion dollars.

At the fair, designers show how amber can be matched with organic materials such as leather, paired with gemstones and precious metals, heated and treated, carved and sculpted, pressurized and cut, or left in its original form for jewelry that’s as trendy and fashionable as any fine jewelry in the world. Much of the work is done by hand, including drawings, in keeping with the organic nature of the material. And as Poland continues to shed the economic shackles of communism and embrace capitalism, small diamonds, more expensive gemstones, and high-karat gold are making their way into amber jewelry designs. In fact, these kinds of expensive pairings were among the biggest trends at this year’s fair.

The companies, the majority of which are small, family-owned firms, always disclose whether the amber was treated but are less willing to discuss their techniques. Companies communicate their views through their creations, and each creation is a work of individual expression.

ARTISTS AND TRENDSETTERS

Aleksander Gliwinski was born into an artist family, and he says that is perhaps why he treats jewelry making as an art. “I put my soul into what I’m doing,” Gliwinski says through an interpreter, his daughter Kasia. “I don’t design only the necklace; I see the whole woman and I want the jewelry to fit to the person.”

While other designers in Poland are incorporating precious metals and gemstones into their amber jewelry, Gliwinski uses only silver and leather to accompany the amber. He says each amber piece dictates his design. “In the beginning I used different kinds of stones, but later I decided to concentrate on amber,” he says. “It is a beautiful stone. What I like about amber is that every item is different, and it allows me to let my imagination go. … Several pieces are beautiful the way they are, and I don’t want to do too much. But sometimes some pieces are provoking or more ethnic. Sometimes the geometric shapes are fun for me. Sometimes it’s the colors.”

With nearly 4,000 pieces of jewelry ranging from individual cutting-edge pieces to larger quantities of traditional designs, S&A is a leader and trendsetter in amber design. “We work with about 30 different companies, and S&A is our main supplier and is also an engine for design,” says Christopher Stepien of Vessel International, which sells Baltic amber to the jewelry trade in the United States. “It is the best and most recognized company in Poland for amber design. … Everybody notices his designs and what he’s bringing to the market.”

The company is so well known for its amber designs that its work occupies a space on the top floor of the Amber Museum in Gdansk.

Adam Pstragowski, a cofounder of S&A, says it employs more than 10 designers, including designers from Berlin and Japan. “We try to discover new trends and bring them to the amber industry,” Pstragowski says.

The company has always used silver, but it is also using materials such as platinum, titanium, and pearls for its high-end designs. Each new material has its own challenges. “When you are doing jewelry with pearls, you can’t go crazy with design,” Pstragowski says.

The company employs state-of-the-art technology and has its own production center, which helps it create uniform jewelry pieces. This technology also allows the company to use some techniques that few others employ. For example, it specializes in riveting instead of using glues or presses to secure metal joints.

FASHION AS EDUCATION

Amberif’s Amber and Fashion Gala, held this year at the Baltic Philharmonic Hall in Gdansk, is a major showcase for companies to display cutting-edge concepts in amber jewelry. Each year, jewelry designers team up with Polish clothing designers to present runway shows that illustrate how amber works with modern fashion trends. This year, eight companies (including S&A and Gliwinski) held shows. Themes included a New Delhi carnival ride, high-tech concepts combined with nature, and a modernized view of the Middle Ages.

Several companies also hold fashion shows at other venues throughout the world. They say these shows are important because it demonstrates to Poland and the world that amber jewelry is fashionable and modern. “We are trying to show that amber can be used for fashion-driven jewelry,” said Margaret Gliwinski, the third-generation member of family-owned Ambermoda, which specializes in fashion-forward amber and silver jewelry. “We connect amber jewelry with fashion. Amber used to be regarded as traditional jewelry and for elderly people. We are changing this perception.”

Changing this perception doesn’t end at the runway. Margaret’s parents, Danuta and MariuszGliwinski, are the company’s head designers. Each year for their new collections they devise fresh ways to pair amber with a variety of materials. The company promotes intensely in the United States, exhibiting and hosting fashion shows at several events including The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas. “We mix amber with diamonds and other gems,” Margaret says. “We add color through a mixture of exotic stones and amber. We show the amber with stones that are equal in value and maybe even more valuable than other stones.”

Bozena Kaminska, the owner and head designer of Amberways, also uses runway shows to promote amber as fashion-forward jewelry. “Eighty percent of the people in Poland don’t like amber,” Kaminska says. “It was very classical in design. Women were bored with the stuff.

“We focus on new collections and design. And we help to promote amber in Poland,” Kaminska adds. “We provide large jewelry for fashion shows so it can be seen [on the runway], then bring it down to scale for the average woman.”

Kaminska finds creative ways to promote her company and her jewelry. She and her dog, Kala (both sporting amber jewelry), serve as the faces of the company, appearing in promotional material and sharing the stage after each runway event. She also works hard to associate her jewelry with successful women.

To keep her designs fresh, she pairs amber with materials such as silk, gold, diamonds, and crystal in addition to silver and leather.

Dejwis is a company that applies newer technology to old-style craftsmanship to create a variety of modern and traditional jewelry, says Tomasz Chabas, export manager.

Much of the jewelry the company displayed at the fair used a heating and polishing technique that creates clear and darkened stripes on the amber. For many of their amber pieces, they use just enough heat and pressure to create a single smokelike cloud inside. They also hand-carve figures on the backs of some of their amber pieces to create hologramlike designs that can be seen from the front.

New Amber Collection, a company jointly owned by Miroslaw Poniatowski and Marcin Wesolowski, specializes in hand-faceted amber. Their latest collection pairs faceted amber pieces with 14k gold and four 0.01 ct. diamonds.

Poniatowski and Wesolowski say faceted amber stones refract light in a way that’s similar to gemstones. But amber is soft, which makes it challenging to cut into faceted shapes. Nevertheless, they say the beauty of their completed works is rewarding. “It’s a new method,” Wesolowski says. “Few people in Poland are doing it.”

Shapes for earrings, pendants, necklaces, and rings include round, oval, teardrop, pear, and emerald cuts. Colors range from clear to cognac. The combination of shape and color creates an understated, elegant appearance.

A separate building at Amberif housed a full-day scientific seminar focusing on the potential sources of raw amber, organized by the Museum of the Earth of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw and the International Amber Association. Another seminar, led by the Antwerp High Diamond Council, was devoted to diamond certification and how to identify synthetic gemstones using basic tools.

Amberif’s success has created a new challenge: space. The buildings housing exhibitors are overflowing, and there’s a waiting list for companies who want to get in. To meet this need, show officials announced that a new structure will be built on the site. It will be ready by March 8, 2008, just in time for the next Amberif. Officials are also working to relocate the exhibition center to a larger space that would accommodate future growth.