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A New Look at Dominican Amber
by Leslie Miller Schwing; the AmberLady
** This article is revised and updated from "A New Look at Dominican Amber" published in Jeweler/Gem Business, Vol VII No.5, 1983 by the same author.

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Some History

Dominican amber is not so much "newly discovered" as it is rediscovered. Diaries of Christopher Columbus contain the first documentation of amber in the new world, but archeological digs have uncovered Taino burial sites holding amber which was used for ornamental purposes. Ironically, when Columbus occupied Hispaniola in the 1490's he presented a Taino chief with a strand of European amber beads and was given the same substance in exchange.

Over the years the deposits were forgotten. In the island's turbulent and difficult history, amber was not foremost in the economic interests of the people, whereas the gold deposits on the island were naturally given priority. Trujillo, the country's 30 year infamous dictator until his assassination in 1961 was not interested in exploring the potential of the amber deposits when it was presented to him in 1949. Except for one early aborted attempt at mining the amber lay dormant until the 1960's.

During the first years of mining in the Dominican Republic there was considerable German involvement. Many tons of rough amber were shipped to Germany to be worked. Eventually the Dominican government became concerned about the quantities of rough amber leaving the country and in 1979 passed a law forbidding the export of amber unless it had been partially worked by native artisans.

In 1987 it was decreed that no insect specimen pieces could be exported without the permission of the National Museum of Natural History. Not generally enforced, except in cases of rare specimens, nonetheless this intervention has decreased availability of insect specimens on the international market, and increased the value of these specimens.

German cutters were of assistance in developing local training programs for native artisans. Though the native work was not particularly sophisticated or fashionable in the beginning years, a growing tourist trade, and later export businesses specializing in the gem, encouraged the development of the industry. Today there are very skilled artisans producing fine jewelry, though it is still maintained as a "cottage industry". Much of that is due to the difficult and limited mining conditions.

The Formation of Amber

Amber is generally defined as a fossil resin, one of the few substances considered a gem which is not of mineral origin (diamond, jet, pearl and ivory being the others). Most amber around the world was formed in the Tertiary period, Eocene to Miocene (30-40 million years), although some amber has been found as old as 60-80 million years (the oldest known insect inclusion is in a piece from New Jersey dated at about 80 million years...).

Amber is formed when sap from trees on land, are later were washed down streams and buried in oceanic alluvial deposits for millions of years (minimum 25 million). It is there that the process of polymerization, and amberization took place.

There are younger ambers, called copal, which have not completely lost their resins but have undergone "polymerization", and thus are partially "amberized". Scientists are not clear on the exact conditions necessary to take sap from its copal stage to the amber stage, and it has not been possible to produce authentic amber in artificial conditions.

A copal is usually distinguishable from real amber by its lighter color and softness. Copal will hold a polish for a short period, and is sometimes marketed as "amber", generally in tourist markets throughout the world. Africa, New Zealand and the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Columbia all produce copal. True amber is also found in these areas.

The Formation and Mining of Dominican Amber

Dominican amber is mined in three main regions of the island (see map). The oldest, and hardest of this amber comes from the La Cumbre region in the central mountain range between Puerto Plata and Santiago. The La Toca, Palo Quemado, La Bucara, and Los Cacaos mining sites are in this region. This amber is dated at minimum 33-40 million years. The Palo Alto area, also near Santiago, dates to 25 million, and the Bayaguana area, in the southeast part of the island, where some amber and mostly copal is found, 15-17 million years.

The source of the tree for all Dominican amber has been established as the Hymenaea, a leguminous tree related to the current Algarrobo tree which still grows on the island.

Most of the amber which is worked and exported as jewelry, and as specimen pieces, comes from the La Cumbre region. The mines are high in the mountains, and the amber is tightly imbedded in a lignite layer of sandstone, between marine deposits. Holes are dug into the sides of the cliffs, or pits in the ground, depending on the angle of the lignite layers, and the amber is extracted by hand in a primitive slow and tedious process with hammer and chisel.

Most of the mining areas are very remote and accessible only by foot or donkey. Most of the miners are also coffee pickers, and are private entrepreneurs with "squatters rights" to amber found on government land. Other deposits, on private land are mined by hired miners. During the coffee picking season, and the rainy seasons, rough amber is difficult to obtain.

Comparison with Baltic Amber

Amber is found worldwide, but only in two areas are the deposits extensive, the Baltic sea area and the Dominican Republic. Until the 1960's, only the Baltic amber was generally known, and when Dominican amber entered the market there was resistance and skepticism among dealers, and severe competition in price, the Dominican amber entering at a significantly cheaper price, was a strong factor in this. It has long been established, however, that Dominican amber is a true amber, and more recent political and economic changes have balanced the market value (Baltic amber has significantly decreased in price since the opening of Eastern Europe and Dominican amber has increased in value).

There are differences between the two ambers that should be noted.

The Valuation of Amber

Rare colors of any amber are considered "more valuable". Inclusions add to the value as well as the craftsmanship involved in the piece of jewelry itself. The skillful cutting of amber, as with any gemstone, can greatly enhance the piece. Size of the stone is also a consideration in price, as large pieces of rough amber are more difficult to obtain than small nuggets. Rough amber is rarely available as pieces larger than the palm of the hand. Much of the carved amber on the market that is of large sizes (over three or four inches tall) is fashioned from pressed amber.

Pressed amber and "ambroid" (pieces of amber imbedded in a plastic) are commonly found in Europe, and sometimes in the United States, usually in the antique markets. Bakelite and early plastic imitations also can easily fool the buyer. There are several tests one can make to determine the authenticity of a piece. A hot needle and smell test can separate the plastics from the pressed or real amber. Also floating the piece, free of findings, in a 10% salt solution is useful. Real amber generates static electricity (so do many plastics). Finally, the eye and experience test, to determine pressed vs. natural amber. Pressed amber is generally very even in color (all beads in a necklace look alike) and if it is translucent, often has a jelled look, with tight swirls. Natural swirls are looser and broader. A collector familiar with amber can virtually "smell" the real from the fake, taste it, and "feel" the difference.

About Inclusions in Amber

Insects, identifiable plant parts, enhydros (moving air and water bubbles), dust swirls, and circular "stalactite" formations add beauty to individual pieces as well as scientific value. The placement and visibility of the inclusions is of prime importance. Most pieces of amber are small, and insects are not commonly centrally placed. Also, stress from the death struggle often weakens the integrity of a piece, and internal fractures may be present.

Small gnats and flies and ants are most common inclusions in amber. Fairly common are larger ants, small termites, wood boring beetles, stingless bees and varieties of beetles and plant hoppers. Mosquitoes aren't as common as one would think, nor are spiders, and both are popular for jewelry purposes. Crickets, larger beetles, little centipedes, cockroaches and large insects of any variety are still less common. The rare and highly sought after inclusions are scorpions, pseudo-scorpions, worms, large spiders, grasshoppers and mantises, fireflies, fleas and ticks, and small frogs and lizards. Mushrooms, feathers and unusual plant life are also favorites on the lists of collectors as well as any large specimen of amber with a spectacular grouping of insects.

Some References

For further reading about amber and especially Dominican amber:

Poinar, George O. Jr."Life in Amber", Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1992.
The most recent and scientifically accurate publication, with extensive information about insect and plant inclusions found in amber. Dr. Poinar's work with DNA and amber has made quite a mark of late in the scientific world. Anyone interested in this aspect of amber should begin research with his material.

Rice, Patty C., "Amber: The Golden Gem of the Ages", Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. New York, 1980.
A very interesting book which focuses on the history, primarily, of Russian amber, with a small section on Dominican Amber. This book gives a very comprehensive overview of ambers around the world.

Brost, Leif and Dahlstrom, Ake, "The Amber Book", Geoscience Press, 1997.
Here is an entertaining and nontechnical story of amber and its links to history, the natural sciences and culture. The authors explore how amber is formed, its role in folklore, how to detect fake amber, its use for lapidary purposes, and how to care for amber jewelry.

Lundberg, Doug, "Amber, A View of the Past", 1995.
An excellent treatment of the natural history of amber with some superb photos of fine samples and additional references.

Brost, Leif, "Amber, A Fossilized Tree Resin", 1995.
An interesting treatment of Amber through the ages with interesting facts about Amber and its use. There is an interesting section discussing the creation of plastic copies of amber.

Platt,Gary, "Identifying True Amber", 1995.
A useful discussion of the methods used to test the authenticity of amber and its value and quality.

Santiago-Blay, J., and Poinar, G.O., Amber: "A window into past biotas and biologic interactions", 1997.
About the formation of fossils and many examples.

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