food / travel

Baltic Amber, The Gold Of The North

Prized for its warm tone, the real value of the ancient gemstone is often what has been trapped inside millennia ago. Traveling to the regions around the North and Baltic Seas, you can find amber both in special gem shops, and if you're lucky, al

(PG Palmer (AU))
(PG Palmer (AU))
Harald Czycholl

Very few art treasures in the world have attracted quite as much rumor and myth as the legendary Amber Room. Known as the "eighth wonder of the world," the room's amber wall panels were intricately carved by the most skilled craftsmen at the start of the 18th century for Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I, who gifted them to the Russian Czar in 1716. Brought back to Germany from the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg in 1941 by German soldiers, the precious panels disappeared in the chaotic days prior to Germany's surrender.

Whether the Amber Room panels were destroyed in 1945 by bomb attacks or hidden by the Nazis is still unknown. Countless treasure hunters have tried to find them, so far without success. But regardless of whether the panels still exist or have long been destroyed, the Amber Room remains a symbol of the massive value accorded to gemstone of fossilized tree resin millions of years old.

Amber is not nicknamed "the gold of the North" for nothing. "Since antiquity, amber has been prized as a gemstone," says expert Thomas Schmidtkonz, the driving force behind, a website for collectors. "Many people collect amber today, or wear it as jewelry. Particularly sought after are pieces of amber with perfectly preserved organisms inside."

These so-called inclusions are particularly valuable, and collectors will pay anywhere between several hundred to several thousand euros for them. The important thing is not the size of the piece of the amber but what it contains.

The "perfect inclusion"

"Many beginning collectors don't understand that, and are disappointed when their beautiful inclusion is contained in a 10-millimeter (less than ½ inch) piece of amber," says Carsten Gröhn, a collector from Glinde near Hamburg. "Another thing to bear in mind is that inclusions are not all equally valuable."

Some are badly preserved, damaged, or difficult to see. But there are also perfect inclusions -- but "even if it's only a long-legged fly," perfect inclusions are rare, says Gröhn.

The species in the inclusion is the second key factor in the value of a piece of amber. "Insects are the most common, followed by spiders," says amber expert Gröhn. "The rarest of all are vertebrates, scorpions and fleas. Only very few of these have ever been found in Baltic amber."

For example, an 18-millimeter (0.70 in.) piece of natural amber with a centipede inclusion costs around 175 euros. A 22-millimeter (0.86 in.) piece with a woodlouse inside costs 85 euros. On the other hand, according to Gröhn, a shrimp inclusion in a 35-millimeter (1.37 in.) stone would be around 600 euros.

Moving up the scale: a whole well-preserved dragon fly wing in a 40-millimeter (1.57 in.) stone would set a collector back 780 euros. And lizards and other vertebrates bring between 5,000 and 10,000 euros.

For those without a trained eye, amber can be difficult to recognize among the many other yellowish and brownish stones on a beach. To tell them apart, collectors can use two tests.

The first is the warmth test. Amber is organic material and feels warm to the touch -- while normal mineral stones feel cold. And if you're still not sure, try hitting the piece of what may be amber lightly against your teeth. Amber being relatively soft it won't make as loud a clicking noise as a normal stone, but rather more like a piece of plastic.

The best time to find amber on the beach is in the fall and winter. The water must be cold -- 4°C is ideal because it makes the prized stones surface and then if there's a storm the pieces are washed up on shore.

The beaches along the North Sea and the Baltic Sea are also awash with amber collectors after fall and winter storms. The best places to check out first are where there are pieces of algae, collections of crab shells, or pieces of drift wood. For many amber fans, finding pieces washed up by the sea themselves is one of the greatest attractions of collecting this particular stone.

Read the original article in German

Photo - PG Palmer (AU)

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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