Japanese Amber

Written by  Wiesław Gierłowski

Thanks to the help of Russian amber jewellers from Leningrad, who worked periodically in Japan , I have long been receiving samples of a fossil resin extracted from the slopes of Mt Kuji, near the town of the same name. The town is located in the northern part of Honshu, Japan 's largest island, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean.


This resin, now called Japanese amber, has features somewhat similar to succinite (Baltic amber) in terms of workability, although it requires much greater care in all the operations, especially when it's being polished because of its tendency to “stretch.”


Only a small portion of the samples was as beautiful as the valuable varieties of transparent and golden Baltic amber. The majority were of an opaque dark orange variety and many of them were brown nuggets with distinctive small spots.


At the time, I did not have the opportunity to see products made of this resin or gain information about the scale of its occurrence, nor to learn about the traditions of its use in its native country. It was only an exhibition presented by the Japanese in the summer of 2006 at the Kaliningrad Amber Museum and its accompanying catalogue that made me appreciate the importance of Japanese amber in business and culture.


This amber occurs in many places on all the main islands of Japan , from Hokkaido in the north to Kyusyu in the south over a distance of over 2,800 km . The mine in Kuji has long been the main source of extraction and remains the only such source today. Extraction there dates back to as early as the 6 th century and at times was performed on a quite impressive scale. For instance, in 1703 as much as 1,296 kg of amber from Kuji was sent to Kyoto alone, while nearby Edo (today, the capital, Tokyo ) received even greater deliveries.

Thirteen tonnes of amber were extracted in Kuji both in 1937 and in 1938. Two very large nuggets survive from the interbellum period:


- a nugget belonging to a private collection weighing 19.875 kg and measuring 40 x 40 x 25 cm; extracted in 1927;

- a nugget belonging to the National Science Museum in Tokyo weighing 16 kg and measuring 40 x 23 x 23 cm , which was extracted in 1941, right before the outbreak of war with the USA;


There are records of enormous nuggets weighing 45 kg and 60 kg extracted in 1905. The nuggets themselves, however, are lost.


The colour range of Japanese amber, which matches the description of the samples I gave in the introduction to this article, also includes numerous specimens with colours from green to black. There are also striped varieties similar to agate.


KAZUHISA SASAKI, the author of an article on the origin and properties of Japanese amber in the Kaliningrad exhibition catalogue, claims that Japanese amber's mother tree must have had very distinct properties. The fossilised resin contains camphor bubbles which burst when heated to 330 o C, giving off a very strong smell.


Amber from Kuji is deposited on the mountain's slopes at a depth of about 600 metres , in rock of various ages. Most of it belongs to the Cretaceous period (80 million years BP), while the rest to the Oligocene (30 million years BP). The amber is extracted from sandstone and quartz. Most of the nuggets are cracked because of seismic tremors and the high pressure at considerable depths. The cracks often contain quartz crystals formed from the fluid which would flow into the cracks and crystallise in them, forming characteristic three-dimentional structures. By containing quartz, Kuji amber of course has a much greater density than Baltic amber, although purely resinous nuggets are within the same range in terms of density.


Japanese amber has been used to make clothing accessories and ornaments for the body, as well as religious objects for centuries. The exhibition in Kaliningrad showed a contemporary copy of a horseshoe-shaped small cushion from a ducal grave, dated at the 6 th century CE. Just like the original, which is kept in the Tokyo collection, the copy was made of greenish Kuji amber. The remaining exhibits by contemporary Japanese artists shown at the exhibition in Kaliningrad were made of Baltic amber.


Teruhisa Takaba and Takajuki Makita from the management of the BEOLUNA TOKYO Joint-Stock Company, who estimate their company's dominant share in Japanese amber processing and trade at 90% of the market, have this to say about the post-World War II supplanting of domestic amber by Baltic amber: “The mine on the slopes of Mt Kuji and the factory at its base suffered war damages. Japan 's disastrous economic situation in the first post-war decades turned the public's notice away from luxury items and caused the reactivation of earlier amber traditions to be neglected.”


The incentive to revive these traditions came with the Washington Convention on the ban on using hawksbill sea turtle shells in tortoiseshell products, which the Nagasaki Bekko company, BEOLUNA'S legal predecessor, specialised in. The techniques and traditions of the intricate tortoiseshell design were transplanted to amber.


At the time, around 1980, the Japanese market already knew Baltic amber products imported from Poland , East Germany and the USSR . The Japanese realised succinite's excellent quality, both in terms of the beauty of the material and its technological superiority over the domestic variety. This was combined with an economic factor: low price and the abundant and regular deliveries from the Kaliningrad Amber Factory. And so Kuji amber did not make a comeback (except for experimental work); instead traditional tortoiseshell ornamentation was transplanted to Baltic amber. However, until 1980 certain techniques were kept a closely guarded secret, including the maki-e technique, where the product's surface is shallowly engraved and pictures are formed with urushi lacquer.


Mostly, however the amber working techniques are the same as those used by Poles and Russians, who in fact worked for several years in Japan as instructors.


The design, however, is much different and specific to Japan . Although it is adapted not only for traditional kimono ornaments but also for European dress, its ornamentation and symbolic meaning is completely original. Decorative and religious objects, for instance symbolic pagoda replicas, play an important role in the production.

Just one note on the assessment of BEOLUNA'S management. It seems that their share in the market is not that dominant. Many Polish and Lithuanian companies have taken good cuts out of the pie. This is not only the result of their systematic participation in fairs (in Osaka and Tokyo ) but also of the ongoing penetration of our manufacturing companies by merchants from Japanese galleries and retail chains.

Wiesław Gierłowski

Wiesław Gierłowski

Is the oldest amber maker from Gdansk and has been in profession since 1957. The expert of amber and author of many publications about amber. Awarded a distinction – the title of the Amber Maker of the Century.

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