The Glow of Mexico’s Amber

There are only a certain number of amber mines in the world. They have come about because there are certain conditions that must be right in order to form deposits. First, it is necessary to have forests of trees the exude sap, often as a means of protecting themselves against parasites. This excess sap runs down the trees, gathers on the ground and though runoff, streams and rivers winds up in shallow oceans. This process means that amber is never really pure tree sap; there will be impurities, but they often raise the value of the amber, not diminish it. The globs of sap undergo a process of fossilization anywhere from 25 to 50 million years, meaning that the amber is often from the sap of tree species long extinct. In the case of the vast majority of Mexico’s amber, that collection was in a shallow sea that eventually disappeared to create what is now the Yucatan peninsula, which extends into parts of the state of Chiapas.
Mexico mines a fairly large quantity of amber but it is not the most productive. That title is for a mine located east of Kaliningrad, Russia, in the Baltic region. It provides 80 to 90% of the world’s amber, about 300 tons a year. Baltic amber is also found in Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and occasionally on the shores of Denmark, Norway and the UK.  In the Americas, Chiapas is the largest producer, coming in at about 5 tons per year. However, the largest piece of amber in the world came from Mexico, weighing 11.7 kilos.
In Mesoamerica, amber was known and prized in rituals related to health as well as the funeral rites of nobles and warriors. Pieces have found in tombs in Oaxaca and Chiapas. Often called Chiapas amber (from the southern state of chiapas, Mexico. Though known to the ancient Maya, and traded or offered as tribute to the Aztecs. The Spanish conquestadors tell of the Aztec emperor, Montezuma stirring his chocolate with an amber spoon.
From that time to the present in Chiapas, amber has been considered to have protective qualities. It is not unusual today to see newborns with small bracelets of amber to “protect them from the evil eye.” The fossil is also believed to be effective against asthma, ear and throat infections as well as a means to increase fertility.
Almost all of Chiapas’s amber is from mines located in the rural municipality of Simojovel, accounting for 90% of Mexico’s production. The rest is from adjoining municipalities with a minuscule amount from other places. The extraction and sale of raw amber is the main economic activity of the Simojovel, especially since the rise of mass tourism in the 20th century.
Mining is still done by hand using picks, axes and hammers as the ground is sandy. Chiapas amber has its own particular qualities and for this reason, it as received a legal denomination of origin status, the same that tequila has. This is to protect the amber from that of other places in the world, but also that mined outside of Chiapas.
The story of Simojovel’s amber production has had a downside. There was a major boom in demand for Chiapas amber from 2012 to 2015, which led to careless exploitation of mines. Although demand has since eased, the municipality is still dealing with the social and environmental fallout from those years.
Chiapas amber comes in a variety of colors ranging from a transparent yellow to a near-black. There are varieties such as red, brown, blue and green, all produced by different impurities. Just about all of Chiapas’s amber is destined for workshops in the state, and almost all of that is used to make jewellery to sell in the state’s major tourist centres, especially San Cristobal de las Casas, with some going to fine jewellery outlets in other parts of Mexico.
One of this amber’s advantages is that it is one of the world’s hardest, registering between 2.5 and 3 on the Mohs scale. This allows for more precise and complex work and designs. The price of finished amber pieces depends on a number of factors, including, size, color, age, it’s working and last, but least, what kinds of foreign matter is trapped within it.
Pieces with well-preserved (entire) and/or rare insects or plant matter can raise the value of a piece considerably. Amber can even contain other animals such as small amphibians. One significant find was that of a frog found in a 25-million year old piece in Simojovel which belongs to the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Because amber jewellery is extremely popular among both locals and tourists, there is, unfortunately, a significant problem with the sale of fakes. The counterfeits are made either with glass or plastic. Just about all of the “amber” sold on the streets of San Cristobal is fake as is the amber sold in Puerto Vallarta. If the price is low, it is most definitely fake as the working of amber requires specialized training. It is simply not possible to sell finished products at street prices.
Some vendors manage to trick the unaware, often by showing that the piece is “authentic” by showing that it does not burn, therefore not of plastic. However, not only does glass not burn, true amber will burn slightly. One of Chiapas amber’s unique qualities is that it gives off a pine resin like smell when subjected to flame.
Other ways to tell that an amber piece is real are to
1) put it in salt water to see if it floats,
2) test it under black light to see if it glows
3) to rub the piece vigorously between the hands to see if its smell appears.
However, most of these tests are either impractical or impossible to do before one buys. At point of sale, the best protection is a reputable dealer.
In San Cristobal, a visit to the Amber Museum is highly recommended. They have an amazing collection of over 300 jewellery and other pieces, prizewinners from the annual Amber Competition for the state’s artisans. Inaugurated in 2000, it is the only one of its kind in the Americas and one of very few in the world. It also gives talks and literature about how to buy authentic amber from reputable outlets (including the museum itself), some of which is in English. Another recommendation is the annual Feria de Amber, usually held in August or September.
Ed. Note: A long time reader (and letter-to-the-editor writer), Frank Norton once gifted my mother and I two pieces of Amber, one orange coloured and the other emerald green, carved in the likeness of a butterfly. Unfortunately Frank doesn’t travel to Vallarta any longer, but he made many of his purchases here with the reputable jewellers. If you’re thinking about buying amber, consider the reputation of your shop/vendor.
All images by Alejandro Linares Garcia