MEXICAN AMBER : Amber is fossilized resin that once exuded from the bark of an ancient long extinct tree. It is not the same as sap which is a nutrient for the tree rising through the heartwood. The resins antiseptic properties protected the tree from disease and attacks from wood gnawing and burrowing insects. As it exuded as blobs or stalactites dripping and flowing down the trunk of the tree. The resin acted as a sticky trap entombing flora and fauna. This amber with inclusions can be a natural time capsule,the very best pieces capturing a moment frozen in time from millions of years ago.

The total production of this amber is probably only about a hundred kilos a month at most. So there is only a limited amount on the market. From the latest research it appears that is from the upp er Oligocene to lower Miocene some 22-28 Million years ago. The amber on this site is from the Simojovel, Huitiupan area and it is found in a marine shale sediment often coated with a limestone scale and sometimes embedded into the surface of the amber are bivalves, oyster shells and other shells. This amber is natural (not treated like most baltic amber). The colour is totally natural and impressive. It is known for its inclusions. It is from a tropical forest and as with Dominican amber it is from an extinct tree species in the genus Hymenaec. This genus still exists in the south and central America. Though the closest relative appears to be one species currently found in Africa and it exudes large amounts of resin (as the extinct one did). The amber is hand polished by Mayan Indigenous (Tzotzil) or myself.

Look at the example in the photo below. It contains many insects including a large moth. One evening I was with Carol Lehtonen-Riley of the Great Frog jewellers, when a moth settled on top of the moth in the amber and stayed for several minutes. The tissue must be intact!

Often called Chiapas amber (from the southern state of chiapas, Mexico. Though known to the ancient Maya, and traded or offered as tribute to the Aztecs. The Spanish conquestadors tell of the Aztec emperor, Montezuma stirring his chocolate with an amber spoon.

In the Aztec records the Mendoza Codex the tribute registry for Socanusca (which is now Chiapas) lists the following
- Strings of jade beads
- Coloured feathers
- Skins of a blue plumaged bird
- Cocoa beans
- 40 skins of jaguar
- 2 bezote (lip piercings) of amber encased in gold
- 2 pieces of clear amber the size of a brick


It first became known to the modern world through Frans Blom, an archaeologist and authority on Mayan culture. This meant he spent much time in the Jungle and isolated areas of Chiapas. Blom, an ex oil surveyor became aware of amber deposits in the Simojovel area of Chiapas. Blom sent samples with insect inclusions to the University of California. This sparked off such interest that soon after in 1953 a group of scientists from California's Museum of Paleontology Berkeley arranged with Blom to visit the amber deposits in Simojovel. Blom owned a large house in San Cristobal de las Cassess(Chiapas). This was a cultural and artistic center with rooms for visitors. They set off for Simojovel in a jeep with Blom the leader of the expedition. They experienced much difficulty because of landslides,rockfalls and the jeep getting stuck in the mud. Added to that the local indigenous people were not used to outsiders and were some what hostile. Despite the problems the expedition was successful. Stratigraphic mapping was undertaken. Amber with inclusions was obtained and a new species of stingless bee was discovered.

Blom's house is now a guest house and museum. It is run as a non profit making cultural foundation dedicated to assisting and protecting the indigenous lacondon people and the conservation of Lacondon Jungle. For more information on this try this link.

Probably the most significant collection of Mexican amber is at the University of California Museum of Berkeley. It was assembled by PD Hurd Jnr, J.W. Wyatt Durham and other scientists from the 1950's onwards.

My first visit to Simojovel was in 1974 -1975. It was still an isolated area and hard to get to. It was not until 1994 that the road was paved. Very little mining was taking place and very few people knew about the amber deposits in the Simojovel area. I knew of only one shop in San Cristobal that had a few pieces of amber for sale, though there were many local Mayans selling polystyrene plastic as amber. It was not until the 1980's that more mining of the amber took place. Phillipa Chatillon opened his first amber gallery in San Cristobal. He was carving Mayan and Olmec deities and figurines and attaching green and purple humming bird feathers to create the plum headdresses. They were extremely stunning pieces. In 1993 the film Jurassic Park was released and this generated much interest in amber and the inclusions. Much more mining took place to meet this demand. Many shops and galleries opened up in San Cristobal.

It is usually estimated that 90 percent or over of all Mexican amber comes from the Simojovel Huitiupan area. The rest from other parts of Chiapas and there are other deposits waiting to be discovered, though it seems the only other area of commercial significance is near the small town of Totalapa some 50km south west of Tuxla.

Copal versus amber
The distinction between Copal and amber is contentious as they both have the same chemical formula. The difference is Copal contains liquids such as oils acids and alcohol. These produce the distinct resin smell. It is often used in incense. In amber these volatile liquids have dissipated and evaporated. The resin has then undergone a process known as polymerization. The organic molecules join to form larger ones called polymers. The molecules are cross linked and intertwined. In Copal only part polymerization has taken place.

The chemical formula for Copal and amber is pretty much the same. From a chemical and geological point of view some people claim no distinction should be made between copal and amber just generally classify them as resinites or fossil resin. Other people insist they should all be called amber. From a jewelry and gemological point of view the definition has to be on its physical properties. Copal still contains volatile liquids which evaporate thus causing it to crack and craze. Copal is not rare and it is unstable and not as hard and durable as amber. According to Dr George Poinar Columbian Copal ranges in age from ten to a few hundred years old. African and Madagascan Copal are probably the same age. The oldest Copal is probably from New Zealand (better known as Kauri gum) which can be up to 40,000 years old. The inclusions in amber are of extinct insect species. In Copal they are modern species.

The best test for distinguishing amber from Copal is a drop of solvent or acetone nail polish remover. Copal will become sticky whilst it will have no effect on amber.

It was Dr George Poinar's research work into DNA in amber inclusions which gave Michael Chrichton his idea for the book Jurassic Park. On the day of the film release of Jurassic Park Dr Poinar, and his team of scientists announced that they had made a breakthrough in extracting DNA from an extinct bee in Dominican amber. This set off much interest in the inclusions in amber. I do not know why any one would want to create a dinosaur. But it has resulted in beneficial research work into plants and insects in amber and to the development of modern species.

Inclusions in amber have enabled scientists to research the earths climatic change patterns and evolution and development of flora and fauna

Much research has been done on inclusions in Baltic amber going back over a long period of time. Baltic amber has been almost fully researched. Even Dominican amber has been more researched than Mexican Amber probably because Mexican Amber is rare and hard to obtain. I have supplied 16 pieces of Mexican amber for research into the inclusions. One contained a new species and genus of insect which was named after me - Tonacatecutlius Gibsoni.

I am not sure what exactly this insect is but it is similar to the bug that was named after me.

Mexican and Dominican amber are not as old as Baltic amber though the inclusions in Mexican and Dominican are probably just as important, if not more, as they come from a time when modern day plants and insects were evolving in the Oligocene/Miocene period.

PHOTOS here are some pictures of the Simojovel area. The amber brings in a much needed income to some of the poorest people in Mexico.

The main amber deposit from the Huitipan river.

CONTACT : In Memory of Dave Gibson. A collector in the UK.

©All photos and text Copyright of Barbra Voltaire for David Gibson and can not be duplicated without permission

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