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Simojovel, Chiapas, Mexico

The village of Simojovel tucked away in the jungle, is located in the state of Chiapas in the southeast of the Mexican republic. It looks like a biblical paradise with outstanding valleys, a jungle, mountains and a coastline blessed with numerous rivers and lakes that feed its rugged geography. It is a land of great racial and social contrasts inherited by the Maya and Zoque civilizations; these include the ethnic groups Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Choles, Tojolabales, Mames, Cakchiqueles, Mochos and Lacondones, who now live together in new hybrid cultures. The name Simojovel is derived from the Tzotzil tongue, the language of the first inhabitants of the region. It means ‘camp of ants’. This village as far as we know, was born in 1610, and classified as a town two years later after it became more populated. Today, it is called Simojovel de Allende. Here, in the middle of the rain forest, one of nature’s best-kept millennial treasures can be found: amber. It is a fossil resin from certain trees, which exhibits great brilliance and transparency. As the resin oozes down the tree trunk it captures leaves or insects that become encapsulated and petrify over millions of years.
Amber was appreciated since Pre-Hispanic times by the Mayas, because unlike other minerals, it was easier to work with and didn’t require mining knowledge for their exploitation. Instead, it offered a raw material to make beautiful and shining jewellery. In Chiapas they still confer magic properties to amber. One of the traditions is for children to wear a bracelet or other items made with amber as a means to ward off certain illnesses, and to calm teething aches.
Simojovel de Allende became famous many years ago as a center for amber that rivalled that from the Baltic region, the Dominican Republic, China, Rumania, Sicily, Canada, Lebanon and Siberia. There are currently several mines that are engaged in the search for these golden yellow coloured gems, to be commercialized in its pure form or made into handicrafts. Even though amber is actually a fossil resin, it is considered by some to be an organic mineral. It possesses some interesting characteristics, for example, it is a good electrical insulator; it is capable of being negatively charged and attracting fine particles when it is rubbed against a fabric. In the XVI century the English physicist Gilbert gave it the name “Vis Elecctria”, a term that inspired another Englishman to create the word “electricity”. The oldest known manmade amber item dates back 30 thousand years and was found in Hanover, Germany. It is not soluble in alcohol and water. It does not float in water, it burns with a bright flame and gives off a pleasant odour similar to incense. Each piece is unique in its form, its colour and mixtures. Unfortunately, it is quite common to find imitations in the market. These can be glass, although it is much heavier than amber, fresh resin or copal, which becomes tacky on the surface when the lit end of a cigarette is placed close to the resin, plastic. Amber is the partially fossilized resin from a tree that contains, among many other components, succinic acid that is produced by distillation. The resin comes from conifers or leguminous plants that date back 25 to 40 million years. Sometimes as the resin, a sticky fluid that over time hardens when it comes in contact with the air, seeps from the tree, trapping small pieces of vegetation or insects, which remain well preserved to the present day; an organic time capsule.


Amber from Simojovel, Chiapas, México.

Luis Lyons photo

In Europe, amber comes from the resin of the PINUS SUBSINIFERA, while in Chiapas it comes from a legume, the carob (HYMENAEA) from the tertiary geological period 40 million years ago. Over time it petrifies within strata of arsenic and clay shale. One hundred and thirty-two different species of insects have been found in amber. As a result of studies of the fossils found in the amber deposits of Chiapas, it has been possible to reconstruct the ambience and the fauna from the Oligocene and Miocene periods. The fossilized insects found in amber from Chiapas are almost as old as the deposits of Baltic amber. This helped to create a profile that is closer to the ecosystems of these ancient eras. The chemical composition of amber is, 78% carbon, 10.2% hydrogen and 11% oxygen. Its specific weight is between 1.05 and 1.10 gr. Most amber has a hardness of between one and three, and its degree of fluorescence depend on the material of which it is composed.
Simojovel is situated in the tropical jungle 130 kilometres to the north of Tuxtla Gutierrez and about 80 kilometres from Palenque. A local farmer came across some translucent, honey yellow sediment about 50 years ago. It turned out to be real amber and from then on the life of that tiny village began to change. Today one third of the indigenous population of Simojovel make their living from amber.
It takes 1.5 hours walking through the jungle, from the village to reach the first amber mine. The mine’s tunnels are between 70 and 150 centimetres in height and are not supported with any beams. With the rise of tourism in the area, its amber has become increasingly valuable, and is now popular for jewellery and an item of collection all over the world