Amber from Chiapas: The gem of Mexico

In Chiapas, amber has been extracted since pre-Hispanic times. For instance, it is known that the Mayas used it in the manufacture of jewelry and in trade.

Amber from Chiapas: The gem of Mexico
Amber from Chiapas: Some people believe that amber pendants provide protection. Photo: Wikimedia

Amber has been mined in Chiapas since pre-Hispanic times. The Zinacantecos bartered with the pochteca who came from Tenochtitlan. The Zinacantecos had a monopoly on amber, they sold or traded it; they took it out of the Simojovel area and brought it to the center.

Twenty-five million years ago, in the area that, with time, would be known as Chiapas, the resin flowed from the vascular tissues of hundreds of thousands of guapinol trees of all ages and conditions. A material of vegetal origin whose tonalities vary, from the most tenuous yellow to the intense coffee, almost black.

From young plants, barely developed, to already aged trees, several meters high. Even the fallen trunks due to rain, lightning, or the softening of the soil, oozed the substance and deposited it on the leaf litter that covered the ground, trapping insects, leaves, and larger animals.

The resin resisted the action of the elements and, also, of the microorganisms in charge of degrading it. Its firmness added to the particular characteristics of the surface on which it was found -clay or sand soils that could create free air deposits-, and gave rise to the fact that it would progressively remain buried and form seams of variable size.

Between 30,000 and 1,000,000 years after the process began, the first product of the transformation of the resins began to appear: copal, a semi-fossilized material, of a certain hardness if compared to the substance from which it originates, appreciated above all for the aroma it gives off when subjected to the flame. The pressure and heat of the Earth acted on the resin continuously and, several million years later, a new transformation took place, resulting in the appearance of amber, a gem or stone of vegetable origin, that is, organic.

The extraction of amber is done through caves. Within a region where it is known that there is amber - since it belongs to the same geological stratum as the known deposits - the miners - clean the ground and locate, practically on the surface, layers of charcoal containing amber. That is the sign.

From there, everything will consist of digging and going into the hill that contains the amber vein. The miner lights up the surrounding cavern in search of the vein of amber and, when he finds it, he will try to obtain pieces of the largest possible size, which he will then sell to the artisans, with or without the intervention of intermediaries.

"The miner used to work an eight-hour day. The product per week was 250 grams of raw amber, one kilo per month. They had to use candles, a mason's cart that they made from wood to pull the rubble and throw it away. - Amber Museum. Bibiano Luna Castro, director.

Amber has been extracted in Chiapas since pre-Hispanic times. It is known, for example, that the Mayas used it in the manufacture of jewelry and that, later, there was an active trade between the central Altiplano and the Mayan zone, where fossilized resin occupied a place of great importance, both as merchandise and as part of the annual tribute delivered to Tenochtitlan.

During the three centuries of the existence of New Spain, amber was used to make rosaries and various ornaments, although its main use was related to the manufacture of different kinds of amulets, used by both Spanish and indigenous people.

To date, in a vast number of indigenous communities belonging to the Zoque, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Tojolabal ethnic groups, amber is attributed to spiritual or medicinal qualities, which gives it widespread use in the form of pendants, pendants, and small objects to wear or hang. There is no lack of groups that, perhaps knowing the relationship between copal and amber, subject the latter to the effect of the flames, to obtain vapors to which healing properties are conferred.

Amber jewelry.
Amber jewelry.

The main place of extraction of amber is in the area of Simojovel, halfway between San Cristobal de Las Casas and the limits of Chiapas with Tabasco. There, in the middle of the ravines, the fossil resin is exposed due to the landslides that occur with some frequency. It is estimated that at least ten communities in the municipality are dedicated to amber, employing between six and seven hundred people in one hundred mines, which have tunnels from two to two hundred meters deep.

The surrounding municipalities of Pantelhó, Huitiupán, Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacán, and Totolapa also have amber deposits, although of a smaller size. According to some studies, the geological strata containing amber even reach Palenque, on the north side, and San Cristóbal de Las Casas, on the south. The magnitude of the deposits, although not proven, should be sufficient to meet the demand in the years to come.

The production of amber in Chiapas has not stopped over the centuries. Its constant market has been, on the one hand, the indigenous communities; on the other, the people whose tastes lead them to appreciate traditional Mexican crafts. According to the canons, the amber extracted from the mines was taken to the artisans, who carefully selected the fragments that would be useful to them, according to a wide range of designs, and proceeded to carve them with a file, paying special attention to waste as little as possible.

Once the desired piece was obtained, it was polished and incorporated into necklaces, bracelets, or earrings. If the piece was a little bigger, it could be carved into a headpiece, a picture frame, a pipe, or some other ornament. The dust that was released from the amber when it was polished was sold to those communities where it was used as medicine, while the remaining pieces were thrown away. The artisan then took his work to the plaza and sold it on his own, or associated with a merchant and sent it to more distant places, like Mexico City.

"Amber is extracted from caves. The caves are made and called mines, that's how they are known, but it's not a formal mine because you follow the vein: if you find other veins on the sides, you also make holes. The amber is obtained in a rudimentary way, with equally rudimentary equipment: the pick, the shovel, the chisel, and the brown". - Amber Regulatory Council.

In this sense, an interesting series of factors influenced that, in the second half of the 20th century, the demand for Chiapan amber will increase. First, the improvement of the road network, which somehow allowed traders of any product -crafts included- to move better throughout the national territory and put in contact with their products to a greater number of consumers.

Second, the gradual development of products linked to tourism and the use of free time, which put a large number of places in the sight of vacationers. Thus, the beaches, initially promoted as the tourist destinations par excellence were followed by colonial cities and, later, by adventure and so-called cultural destinations. Among these, the places where handicrafts were produced and commercialized gained unusual importance, which boosted the demand for objects made from native materials, as was the case of amber.

People's interest in amber objects led the artisans to create more daring figures. Where before only small objects were made, good size carvings appeared with the shapes of animals, pre-Hispanic deities, and fantastic beings. The goldsmiths multiplied their efforts to set pieces of amber containing important inclusions -that is, plants or insects encapsulated in the resin since prehistoric times- into outstanding jewelry creations.

As a result, the price of amber crafts, already high due to the work associated with the creation of the pieces -along with the very rarity of amber-, increased even more. It was then when, in the amber area, but mainly in the tourist centers of the region, such as San Cristobal de Las Casas, pieces of reduced value began to appear. In any street and any square, tourists found individuals who sold them amber works with a value far below that of the artisans' establishments. Without hesitation, they would buy. Only later did they find out that they had been cheated: the supposed amber was nothing but plastic or glass.

The proliferation of pieces pretending to be amber was one of the reasons that led the Secretary of Economic Development of the government of Chiapas to request, in February and June 2000, a declaration of denomination of origin, to protect amber from any kind of unfair competition. In November of the same year, the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property issued the declaration of protection for the denomination of origin "Amber from Chiapas" for material extracted in any corner of the state.

Likewise, it was established that not only fossilized resin -that is, amber in its natural state- could be called amber, but also the products obtained from it, regardless of their size or use. Given the numerous varieties of amber that existed, it was mentioned that the details related to the identification of the raw material and the procedures to carry out its use would have to be defined in the corresponding official standard.

In December 2001, the Ministry of Economy issued the draft of Official Standard 152, corresponding to amber, and gave a deadline for the submission of comments on it. Since no comments were received, in August 2003 Official Mexican Norm NOM-152- SCFI-2003, "Amber from Chiapas. Specifications and test methods".

It describes amber -the fossil resin-, in what colors it can be found -from almost transparent to brown, passing through green and different brown or red tones-, what are its physical properties and how it can be worked, including the different processes of sanding, carving and crimping. The standard also determines how the amber pieces have to be labeled and establishes the obligation, in this case for the miners, to put into practice more adequate methods for the extraction of the fossilized resin, as well as to have reliable quality control systems.

In 2013, a new player entered the scene: the international buyer. Gradually, industrialists from China, Korea, the United States, and, to a lesser extent, other regions of the world, became interested in Chiapas amber. All of them were aware of the acceptance that the fossilized resins obtained in Europe -the famous Baltic amber- or in the Dominican Republic were having in the world markets. The purity of Mexican amber, considered among the best in the world, together with its variety of colors and the enormous quantity of pieces with inclusions that it was possible to acquire, encouraged them to invest their capital, first with caution and later with courage.

The entry of foreign capital boosted the extraction of amber, allowing the owners of the mines to hire workers that would not only save them the fatigue and dangers associated with amber extraction but also allow them to significantly increase their workdays. More work, carried out with better tools - pneumatic drills replaced traditional hammers and chisels -, added to the insertion of other modern elements in the exploitation of the mines - electric light, for example - resulted in greater production and, logically, a greater flow of money.

Beyond its commercial value, recently there has been an intensification of research that has as its object the study of amber. The Optics Research Center, based in Leon, Guanajuato, carries out studies in which, on the one hand, its fluorescence properties and the medical uses it could have been analyzed; on the other hand, it studies the way of reforesting the lands where the mines are located.

Finally, the appropriate method to create vegetal resin or synthetic amber -a process that may be possible to equate to the one that gives rise to zirconia and cultivated pearless- is being eagerly sought in a laboratory, which would mitigate the pressure that demand exerts on the already existing veins and, consequently, would prolong their life.

Meanwhile, animal or vegetable inserts, which are usually considered only from a commercial point of view, by increasing the commercial value of an amber fragment are, at the same time, invaluable samples for the study of the remote past. The examination of the pieces of amber has allowed the discovery and classification of hundreds of already extinct species, typical of the Mesozoic and the ice age, which helps paleontologists to get an idea of the evolutionary mechanisms.

The amber resulting from the processes of compaction and fossilization is, as a rule, an emissary of the past. It is not only a valuable commodity or an agent of change for the communities dedicated to its exploitation: it is an unbeatable object to know how our planet was millions of years ago. It is time that has materialized. Time turned into art.

"The first miners used candles, but as the type of work evolved, they now use flashlights. Tradition says that the first miners used the candle as an offering: on Thursdays, they carried those famous posada candles, those of the number 15, as they were called, they carried ten, twelve, and incense. They did this on Thursdays, it was a tradition, as an offering. And the normal candle is the one they took to work".

Source: © Mexican Institute of Industrial Property