Amber seems always to have enjoyed a mythic status, and was long prized for the healing properties it was thought to possess. Tales of its origins were equally exotic; one story related that amber was made up of the fossilised tears of Phaeton's sisters, who wept when the ill-fated hero lost control of his father's chariot of the sun and was struck down by one of Jupiter's bolts.
In fact, amber is made of the fossilised resin of trees, and in Europe, the source of almost all amber was from the Baltic region. Before the Baltic was formed approximately 100,000 years ago, the area was covered in a forest which produced large quantities of resin (Trusted, 1985, op. cit., p. 9). Amber is known to have been worked from pre-historic times, and in the Middle Ages there was a flourishing trade, particularly spurred by the use of amber for rosaries. However, it was with the rise of the idea of the Kunstkammer in the renaissance courts of Europe that the fascination with amber reached its apogee.
The presence of the Prussian court at Königsberg meant that the most important centre for amber carving in the early decades of the 17th century was based there, and although its pre-eminence was to be challenged by other centres - such as Danzig - later in the century, it remained important for the production of works of art in amber until well into the 18th century.
The present amber casket must date from the second half of the 17th century because it has employed a technique which was rarely used earlier. This is the construction of the upper tiers of the casket through the use of dowelling and glue alone, and without the use of a wooden carcase as a support. This has allowed the artist to exploit the transparency and rich colours of the amber which glows as the light passes through it. Stylistically, it can be compared to a casket in the Staatliche Kunstsammlung, Kassel (catalogued as East Prussian or Pommeranian, end of the 17th century; see Reineking von Bock, op. cit., p. 99, figs. 138 and 139) in its overall form, although the casket offered here is much larger and more elaborate in its decoration. The floor of the interior of the present casket is also so close to the top of a casket in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (catalogued as Prussian or Pommeranian, second half 17th century; see Reineking von Bock, op.cit., pp. 122-123, figs. 184-185), as to suggest that they may have come from the same workshop.
Because of the fragile nature of the material and construction of the present casket, it was almost certainly never intended to be used as a container for jewellery or games pieces. Rather, the mythological scenes on the theme of famous lovers suggest that it was commissioned as a gift for a partner - perhaps on the occasion of a marriage - and that it was intended to be viewed as a work of art in its own right. Placed in a kunstkammer with other precious objects, this amber casket would have fascinated and delighted its owners and their guests, who could contemplate the beauty of the material and the complexity of the design.