The amber issue

questione ambra
If all mouthpieces mounted on old and new pipes were really made of amber, it would mean that amber could be extracted from quarries in the same way as marble.

Sadly, amber (fossilized tree resin) is increasingly rare, either because the processing area is very restricted (well delimited areas of the Baltic seabed), or because it was uncontrollably exploited in the past centuries – just think of the famous Amber Room of the Tzars.

Amber has always been considered a rare and precious material and it was mainly used for jewelry: rings, necklaces, cameos, earrings, and so on – or for payments in place of currency.

After rarity, the other major difficulty was in finding big pieces: a handful of amber was already considered extraordinary. Today searchers can only dream about such a quantity.

The last – but not least – problem was its processing.

Fragile as glass, it burns, it melts if processed with various solvents, and it corrodes through use: here is the downside of this treasure, considered even “magical”, and one of the few magnificent symbols of prehistory.

In 1800 skilled Viennese and Hungarian artisans dared to try using amber to make mouthpieces in Meerschaum* (magnesium silicate) pipes to make the most of their creations in miniature. Initially they were only cigar-smoking pipes, then pipes.

The limits, as said, were the dimensions and processing.

With a few scarce exceptions (whoever owns one of those rare mouthpieces doesn’t even show it, not to mention sell it). What can be seen today in museums or private collections, or what is rarely put on sale, is composed of few centimeters straight or almost straight mouthpieces. Drilling a long piece means destroying it. Curving a mouthpiece (that has already survived drilling) is a challenge that goes beyond current human capabilities, despite modern technologies.

The secrets of the past to curve amber are buried with their discoverers, but it’s certain that broken pieces were more than the successful ones. To drill it, extremely slow foot-powered lathes were used.

In Germany in the Sixties (the writer saw it in person) a regenerated amber was produced: a fine powder of production scraps was pressed into steel cylinders together with binding resins. The cylinder of extracted material (core) was processed and turned like methacrylate. The cost, however, was still prohibitive.

Around 1900 the Andreas Bauer company of Vienna chose another direction (it was the most famous brand in the world, surviving until the 1990s thanks to a competent Hungarian woman – Frau Mrstik – with whom the writer has worked for many years, but today it’s all over).

Ça va sans dire that the Bauer’s are sought after collectors all over the world.

This brand used to have self-manufactured mouthpieces, named “Kunstamber”, authorized by the Austrian government. Composition: high percentage of amber powder bonded with a natural catalyzer. Legend has it that such “recipe” was born by accident when the old Bauer dropped a liquid substance in the container for powder. The following day he found the whole mixture crystallized.

When the Bauer factory closed down some years ago, no one felt like buying out the brand, which included the disclosure of the priceless recipe.

At least so far.

Antonio Paolo Paronelli

* = in Paronelli Museum there’s a work bench to process Meerschaum