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Dominican Republic Amber
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/.


Amber mining

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 fossils

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.
 
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