The main problem of amber industry today is processing. Without having significant amber reserves, Baltic States and Poland have won recognition as “amber capitals” thanks to their craftsmen. In Europe amber is recognized as Polish stone. While Russian city of Kaliningrad, right on the border with Europe, has the biggest share of extractable amber in the world, is still producing one-size-fits-all jewelry featuring Soviet-era design, as well as inexpensive souvenirs made of amber chip. The reason behind this situation is the inability of most Russian manufacturers and processers to efficiently process raw materials.
Lack of highly-qualified personnel, exploiting state-of-the-art technologies of raw materials processing; poor design skills; inability to market and promote the product — due to these problems producer cannot offer a high-quality product with high added value and offsets low-level marginality by means of low cost of raw material.
As most Russian amber manufacturers are unable to process raw materials efficiently, Chinese are ready to buy tons of bracelets and necklaces made of amber. Consumers from Baltic states traditionally buy inexpensive amber pieces, while Italians, Spanish, French and German people prefer more expensive items. Market dictates its own terms – it’s easier to sell to such avid buyers as Chinese, but gradually Kaliningrad manufacturers come to understand that developing the industry will bring its benefits in the long run.
Amber industry in Kaliningrad region employs more that 2,000 people, while in the neighbouring Poland their number exceeds 10,000. According to different estimates, 30 to 40 Russian processing companies have potential to growth. However, if the region currently does not have enough staff for turning amber into pieces of jewelry art, does not mean that there are actually no people who can do it.
In 2015 the plant supported Russian amber project, which has become a mecca for creative young people and is the birthplace of the new take on the stone. It includes young designers, jewelers and artists from all over Russia, working on new designs of jewelry pieces with amber and producing ideas on how amber can be integrated into modern lifestyle. The main principle of their work – rejection of the idea of “grandma’s necklace”, which is often associated with pieces made of amber, and a completely new take on amber. By co-operating with designers, jewelers, artists, exhibiting, conducting creative contests and displays in museums in Moscow and other Russian regions, creating art objects and unique culturally-relevant pieces, the biggest amber manufacturer shows its willingness to change the image of amber in Russia. Briefly, the plant is taking various steps in an attempt to take over the leading position from Polish and Lithuanian competitors.
Banning raw materials exports may prove beneficial, and designs by young jewelers may replace trivial fakes from the market. However, there is another legacy of the criminal past of the amber industry, which is more difficult to conquer – illegal diggers. Hundreds of locals are digging amber illegally. Since the legislation is not strict, it’s tempting to get an inexpensive motor pump and, armed with a shovel, to start extracting amber. In Soviet times it was considered a criminal act. Some people are speaking in favor of such initiative today, but for now it’s just a discussion. It’s very difficult to combat illegal amber extraction: today you have detained one illegal digger, tomorrow another one comes to take his place.
One of the biggest illegal quarries is located in Zelenograd region. It reminds moon’s surface with numerous 5 to 10 meter-deep craters. Along the perimeter of some of them a couple of strong men in camouflage and masks are standing – they are the soldiers of local Special Rapid Deployment Force. Usually their “clients” are killers, burglars, bandits and other dangerous criminals, but they have to do this job regularly too. Now they have detained a man from a village in Zelenograd region. He says he needs money, that’s why he is doing this – he makes around $30 a day.
“It’s not quite clear what can be done about the situation: these actions harm the forest immensely, and it’s not clear who must be held responsible”, — member of the economy police explains. In fact, detained diggers should fill up the holes, they should be ticketed for harming the environment, but there is no such legislature in place right now. While it remains difficult to discourage locals from digging the area, they don’t find job opportunities on the amber plant, which continue to grow in number and are very advantageous for the region, worthwhile. Recently more and more people have started speaking in favor of demonopolization of amber extraction, which will give private or government corporations a chance to extract raw materials on the territory of Kaliningrad region.
In any case, the main problems of the region ‒ low rates of amber processing as well as illegal extraction and export of amber, remain central issues to deal with.