Valuable tree sap in Chiapas

There are only a certain number of ambar 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 ambar is never really pure tree sap; there will be impurities, but they often raise the value of the ambar, not diminish it. The globs of sap undergo a process of fossilization anywhere from 25 to 50 million years, meaning that the ambar is often from the sap of tree species long extinct. In the case the vast majority of Mexico’s ambar, that collection was in a shallow sea that eventually disappeared to create what is now the Yucatan penninsula, which extends into parts of the state of Chiapas.

Raw and partially worked ambar at the Ambar Museum in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

Mexico mines a fairly large quanity of ambar 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 ambar, about 300 tons a year. Baltic ambar 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 ambar in the world came from Mexico, weighing 11.7 kilos.

In Mesoamerica, ambar 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. From that time to the present in Chiapas, ambar has been considered to have protective qualities. It is not unusual today to see newborns with small bracelets of ambar 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.

Ambar worked into Mesoamerican ear jewelry in San Cristobal.
File:Simojovel en Chiapas.svg
Location of Simojovel, Chiapas

Almost all of Chiapas’s ambar 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 minicule amount from other places. The extraction and sale of raw ambar is the main economic activitiy 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 ambar 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 ambar from that of other places in the world, but also that mined outside of Chiapas. The story of Simojovel’s ambar production has had a downside. There was a major boom in demand for Chiapas ambar 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.

Ambar necklace Maria Elizabeth Mendoza Estrada of Simojovel, Chiapas

Chiapas ambar 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 ambar is destined for workshops in the state, and almost all of that is used to make jewelry to sell in the state’s major tourist centers, especially San Cristobal de las Casas, with some going to fine jewelry outlets in other parts of Mexico. One of this ambar’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 ambar pieces depends on a number of factors, including, size, color, age, its 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. Ambar 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 ambar jewelry 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 “ambar” sold on the streets of San Cristobal is fake. If the price is low, it is most definitely fake as the working of ambar 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 ambar will burn slightly. One of Chiapas ambar’s unique qualities is that it gives off a pine resin like smell when subjected to flame.

Other ways to tell that an ambar 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 close or 3) to rub the piece vigourously 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 Ambar Museum is highly recommended. They have an amazing collection of over 300 jewelry and other pieces, prize winners from the annual Ambar 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 ambar from reputable outlets (including the museum itself), some of which is in English. Another recommendation is the annual Feria de Ambar, usually held in August or September.

Fossilized leaves in an ambar piece in the Ambar Museum in San Cristobal


All images by Alejandro Linares Garcia except the map by Battroid


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