With the support of the government program to develop the resorts area of Playa
Dorada in Puerto Plata, the Planarte program fostered a center to train jewelers
in Puerto Plata under German technician, Heinz Meder. Marketing programs
nevertheless were not in line with the training, and soon there was a saturation
of artisans. |
The 1993 blockbuster movie Jurassic park by Stephen Spielberg was partially
filmed in the Dominican Republic and some of the storyline was inspired in part
by a piece of Dominican amber that contained a mosquito. In the movie,
scientists used dinosaur blood that was found inside the mosquito to reconstruct
and clone dinosaurs. Sales of Dominican amber are said to have increased about
500% immediately following the movies release.
The initial modern day real interest in mining amber would also come from
Germans who began mining large amounts of it and exporting it back to Germany.
In 1979, concerned about the large amounts of amber that was leaving the
country, the Dominican government passed a law forbidding its export unless
native artisans were at least partially involved in the mining. In 1987 a law
was passed stating that no amber pieces that had insects in them would be
permitted to leave the country without the permission of the National Museum of
Natural History. This subsequently increased the value of these pieces.
Unfortunately, along with the increase in amber’s popularity and value has come
a counterfeit market. Apparently, some of the counterfeit pieces look very much
like the authentic amber pieces making them very difficult to spot. One way to
tell if the piece you are holding is actual amber is to rub it. Supposedly,
rubbing a real piece of amber will result in it emitting a natural pine scent.
This also causes it to become electrically charged, especially if rubbed against
cloth or wool. After rubbing it in this way, hold a small piece of paper above
it. If the piece of paper moves or lifts, it is real amber. Another way to test
the authenticity of amber is to attempt to float it in salt water. If it floats,
it probably is the real thing as imitations usually sink.
Of the original amber artisans that remain today, is the Grand Factory, under
the Ortiz brothers who came from Moca, and Harrison’s that also works the stone
into fine crafts.
Today, the Amber World Museum in Zona Colonial Santo Domingo that opened in 1996
can also be visited. Here is a link to their website http://www.amberworldmuseum.com/.
Generally, amber has been found in spots along the steep mountains where there
are deep indentations in the land. If the amber happens to extend deep into the
mountainside, a shaft will be dug into the mountain to follow the amber deposit.
Unfortunately, working in these mines can be very dangerous as the shafts can
extend hundreds of feet into the side of the mountain and are sometimes not
reinforced very well creating the potential for a cave in. Occasionally, a cave
in or a landslide does happen and sometimes in these instances, miners are
killed. The estimated age of the amber deposits vary with the youngest deposits
being dug out estimated at between 15 to 17 million years old and the oldest
estimated at between 30 and 40 million years old.
Most of the miners are poor Dominicans that live in villages near the mines.
They spend their day’s deep underground chipping away at rocks while squatting
under the light of flickering candles. It is difficult work and they do not earn
much money but what they do earn is enough to feed their families and support
their simple lifestyles. Some children begin mining at a young age and generally
once they begin, continue doing so for the rest of their lives as there is
little opportunity to earn a living at anything else. In some of the areas
surrounding these mines, entire villages are employed as miners. They can range
in age from 10 years of age to 65.
The higher grade of amber frequently found in the Dominican Republic is
sometimes referred to as “blue amber”. It is not actually blue in color but
sometimes when the light reflects off it the right way, a piece gives off a
bluish sheen. On most pieces of the amber, the blue properties are not
noticeable or are difficult to detect. The amber with the strongest blue
radiance is said to come from the Los Cacaos mine located in the Cordillera
Septentrional. It is believed that the bluish radiance is caused by the presence
of volcanic ash that might have been present when the amber was first exuded
from the tree and went through the drying and hardening process.
Amber pieces that are discovered are usually not more than an inch or two across
in size. However, bigger pieces are occasionally found. The biggest amber piece
ever mined in the Dominican Republic weighed an enormous 18 pounds. Naturally,
mining a piece anywhere near this size is extremely uncommon.
Some of the pieces of amber taken from the mines have interesting contents. Some
have insects, bugs, spiders and even lizards. Some of these rare pieces can
fetch quite a sum of money nowadays, especially considering the fact that
whatever insect or creature is trapped inside the amber is millions of years
old. The oldest known spider found trapped in amber was found in a Lebanese
fossil and is said to date back to 130 to 135 million years ago. This fossil
made the 2004 Guinness Book of World Records.
One of the more famous amber fossils in the Dominican Republic is a piece on
display in the Puerto Plata Amber Museum containing a 42.5-centimeter lizard.
One of the rarest amber specimens is one containing hairs of the ‘hutia’, an
extinct mammal indigenous to the island. This fossil is a valuable piece of
evidence that the Dominican Republic was once a part of South America as these
mammals were not found on islands but on bigger land masses. It is said that a
piece of amber with a small lizard trapped inside can fetch US$15,000-US$20,000
in today’s market. Ironically, when Dominicans first started mining the amber
for the purpose of selling it, they threw away pieces such as these because they
assumed that they were flawed and therefore incorrectly assumed that they were
worthless. They had no idea what they really had.
Today, along with numerous stores around the Dominican Republic and in many
jewelry stores throughout the world, there are numerous websites selling amber
jewelry. Amber has turned into a prosperous business and amber pieces and
jewelry can make great gifts, can serve as terrific mementos from vacations to
the Dominican Republic, or can serve as interesting collectors’ items.