The Amber Jewel of Mexico

The hidden gems of Mexico’s Chiapas region come with a culture and a cost.

Photojournalism by Jamie Forde.
Article by Benjamin Hayward.

Marcelino Moreno, an 18-year-old who works in his father’s mine, or cave as it is locally called, collects about half a kilo per week of stained amber which is sold in the Park  Centrale de Simojovel for about 2 or 3 pesos per gram.
Marcelino Moreno, an 18-year-old who works in his father’s mine, or cave as it is locally called, collects about half a kilo per week of stained amber which is sold in the Park Centrale de Simojovel for about 2 or 3 pesos per gram.

Search Ebay.com for precious amber from Mexico, and a plethora of fine jewelry and un-worked stones from the Chiapas region are returned by the results. Rarer and therefore more exotic than the amber mined in the Baltic region, Chiapas Amber is generally more translucent and can depict plants and insects that have been preserved within for over 20 million years.

On Ebay, it is sold from between $3 to $10 per gram. In the small mountain town of Simojovel, Mexico, however, family-operated mines are paid the equivalent of 15 to 25 cents per gram for the same amber at their local market.

Amber has been a traditional resource of the region for over two millennia. The Olmecs and then the Mayans came to the region to mine the precious stone, and the latter exported the worked gems throughout their vast empire. Jewelry and other ornaments were adorned with amber, and the mythology of the indigenous people attributed healing and protective qualities to the stone.

The tradition of craftsmanship continues today in Chiapas, which is ranked among the ten “most indianized states” in Mexico—most of the indigenous groups being descendants of the Mayans. In the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, which boasts an annual Amber Expo and the Americas’ only Museum of Amber, over a quarter of the population speak an indigenous language, and the percentage is much higher in rural communities.

In Mexico, Chiapas is one of the states that is responsible for a large amount of handicrafts and folk art. Many of the indigenous people are employed by industries setup around the production of traditional clothing, textiles, and artwork made of wood, jade, and amber, all of which are heavily marketed to tourists from Mexico and abroad.

In recent years, the demand for Chiapas Amber has climbed in international markets. Up until 20 years ago, the majority of the people in the municipality of Simojovel harvested coffee beans as a cash crop. Today Simojovel is the source of 95 percent of Chiapas Amber, approximately 2,000 or 3,500 kg per year according to different sources. The amber industry, including mining and trade, has become the region’s most important economic activity.

Slowly a number of previously closed or collapsed mines reopened, and workers returned to the town to work in their family mines. The results have not entirely been cause for celebration, however. The mining process that now employs so many is labor-intensive and takes a heavy toll on the miners’ health. In addition, such work in rural areas pays relatively little compared to the physical demand. The entrepreneurship involved allows miners to work flexible hours to meet their needs, but it offers otherwise little security for hundreds of families relying on the profitability of a small mine.

In addition, the recent production of fake amber has created competition for the authentic stones, and the prevalence of indistinguishable plastic resin gems in San Cristobal has made many tourists wary of street sellers. Much of the mining industry instead relies on international demand which has made amber into a buyer’s rather than a seller’s market. An influx of Chinese businesses now comes to buy the amber directly in Simojovel, seeking out the lowest possible prices for export.

Nonetheless many in the state of Chiapas earn their living in the amber industry. As depicted in Jamie Forde’s “The Amber Trail”, amber is a source of pride, hardship, and livelihood. He writes:

“The Amber Project defines my time spent in the small city of San Cristobal de las Cases in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. I wanted to document the amber communities built up around their main source of income. It highlights that no matter what the precious stone, exploitation and injustice will always follow.

“It is evident just by walking in the city of how many people rely on amber to make a living. I made several trips to the mines of Simojovel in the mountains where we encountered the indigenous Tzotzil community who alleged they were being mistreated by …

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Mr. Forde is a freelance photojournalist born and raised in Ireland and now traveling in Latin America, the United States, and Canada. You can see more of his work at visionsforchange.weebly.com

Mr. Hayward is a journalist and assistant editor at The Global Intelligence Publications.

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