Archive for September, 2006

Sep 01 2006

Dominican Amber Mines: The Definitive List

Published by Alec under blue amber

Let’s play word association. I say a word and you try to think of all the words that come to mind.

Ready? Here it goes.

“Amber Mine.”

Excavation. Hole in the ground. Shafts. Dirty-faced miners. Trolley. Shovels. Lamps on helmets. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Okay, don’t know where the last one came from. But indeed, most of us have a certain image in our heads as to what a mine should look like, and the above words sum this up quite nicely.

Steven Spielberg didn’t help the image. In his 1993 movie Jurassic Park he depicted a Dominican Amber Mine the way he felt it should look (using the above words). The result was a very stylized Dominican Amber Mine, with a river alongside it, about a dozen miners in hardhats with picks and shovels and even the obligatory mining trolley. The mine itself was large and secured by pillars and vertical and a grown man could stand in it. Even the pieces found are easily exposed and show off their interior beauty in the shine of powerful flashlights.

But to this critic the funniest discrepancy was the Mexican accents of the miners.

In short, most people imagine amber mining to be alike shaft mining. The truth is, it is closer to bell pitting than shaft mining.

The difference is quickly told: shaft mining is what everyone understands under ‘mining’: trolleys, lamps, pillars, the works.

Bell pitting is basically a foxhole dug with whatever tools are available. Machetes do the start, some shovels and picks and hammers may participate eventually. The pit itself goes as deep as possible or safe, sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal, but never level. It snakes into hill sides, drops away, joins up with others, goes straight up and pops out elsewhere. ‘Foxhole’ applies indeed: rarely are the pits large enough to stand in, and then only at the entrance. Miners crawl around on their knees using candles and short-handled picks, shovels and machetes.

There are little to no safety measures in sight. A pillar or so may hold back the ceiling from time to time but only if the area has previously collapsed.

There is also a shocking lack in any other safety measures we have come to know from mines. Candles are the only source of light. Humidity inside the mines is at 100%. Since the holes are situated high on mountainsides (no rivers to speak of) and deep inside said mountains, the temperature is cool and bearable, but after several hours the air becomes stale.

During rain the mines are forced to close. The holes fill up quickly with water, and there is little point in pumping it out again (although sometimes this is done) because the unsecured walls may crumble. The dirt is hauled out of the pits using sacks, and the miners crawl to the surface out of their cave in Platonic fashion, squint into the sun as they dump the dirt and promptly return down into their reality.

There are some mining families who have done this for years. Other miners come on a temporary basis, but the number of people involved in the digging process fluctuates around 3000 island wide.

In light of the above circumstances one is forced to ask why anyone would want to continue in such a seemingly hazardous occupation.

In order to understand the Dominican miners, one must understand the Dominican idiosyncrasy. We already talked about this in the Amber Forger Boys article, but the gist would be: as long as it works, it’ll do.

The lack of security measures is not due to a lack of money. Being an amber miner can be quite profitable. But why install safety procedures if nothing serious has happened? Why use expensive flashlights if candles are so much cheaper? Why waste time digging large holes if small ones are dug much faster?

Although there are exceptions and variations, this is collectively known as the Mañana Philosophy. Why do it today if you can do it mañana?

Foresight is practically nonexistent — living in the moment is what counts. Many mining families live in relative poverty (relative to western standards) but not always due to a lack of money but a lack of will, prevision and care on their own behalf: we have lived like this all our life and it has served us well – why change?

Of course there are often cases of alcoholism and gambling (cockfighting is particularly popular among miners) which contribute to their state, but it would be unfair to pity miners for their lot in life since they have chosen it and are handling it on their own free will.

Mines are privately held, rarely by the miners. A common practice is for owners to permit the miners to dig on their premises and then buy the found stones from them. This has the advantage for the owner that he only pays the miners if they find something, and the advantage for the miners that the more they work and find, the more money they make. It is not uncommon for a miner to make 3 to 20 thousand pesos in a good week (the nation’s minimum wage is 3000 pesos a month), working on his own schedule.

What about rumors of child labor? Unless a father decides to take his son to the mine and show him the ropes and have him help out a bit, children do not work in the mines (there goes another Indiana Jones image). Of course it is natural for kids to help out in the family business, especially here.

Family is very important in the Dominican Republic and young people generally do not leave their parents at all, even after marriage. Children are not just thought of as offspring to guarantee the succession of a family line, but also as a Retirement Plan. At a certain age the roles in the house hold are reversed, and the grown children take care of their aged parents (a pointer to any foreigner considering marriage to a Dominican: you do not marry a person, you marry a family).

Mines spring literally out of the ground over night, sometimes last only a short time and then run dry. Others seem to go on for years and specialize in certain types of amber. While one may be known for its insects, another may be known for its blue variations. Some have been around for years and don’t seem to slow down.

The following list of Amber mines focuses on mines in the Cordillera Septentrional, a mountain range located between the coastal city of Puerto Plata and the “secret capital” of the Dominican Republic, the city of Santiago.

There are two main arteries connecting the two cities, one highway taking the long way around the range, while the shortest and scenic road cuts straight through. The scenic road, known as the Carretera Turística, the Tourist Road, has much history to it – and it shows. The former nation’s dictator Trujillo built a luscious residence alongside it with its own private coffee plantation, and had the famous revolutionists the Mirabal Sisters brutally executed just a kilometer down the road (the incident was depicted in the movie In the Time of the Butterflies, featuring Salma Hayek).

Despite being the first and oldest, it is also one of the worst kept. There are almost as many potholes as there are amber stores along that road, and that’s because of the proximity to the amber mines (the stores, not the potholes).

About half-way between the two cities and on its highest point sits the quaint little village of La Cumbre, population twenty huts and a goat. La Cumbre, meaning The Peak, is the Dominican Amber Central. Life up here pretty much centers around excavating amber, planting coffee, having a good time and roasting the above goat. And that for over fifty years (the amber mines, not the… you know).

It is up here that some of the best known amber mines have sprung from the ground… that is, dove into the ground to be specific. The following list is about mines on the east side of the road.

Usage of the term ‘mine’: The name of each mine we will explore below does not refer to a single hole and/or several. It refers to an entire area that can cover up to five kilometers, give or take a few clicks. Dominican idiosyncrasy makes name-calling difficult. Try getting directions. Indications are generally very vague and hard to follow. It seems however that many ‘mines’ sharing the same name but spread out over a larger area seem to also share the same ‘veta’ – a vein of amber running through the mountain.

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Name: Palo Quemado

Meaning of Name: Burnt Log

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. Close to the Carretera Turística.

Amount of Holes: 4+ vary with season. Area size about 5 kilometers.

Color Gradient: Mostly traditional amber, gold, yellow, lemon. Slight blue shimmers for yellow at times. Some reddish to deep red.

Quality: Most of the material is workable for jewelry. It is very strong and takes longer to polish. Holes can be drilled without chipping and a polished sheen will last.

Fossils: Seldom and/or bad quality.

Notes: This is one of the first mines on the island. It also has delivered some of the largest known pieces.

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Name: La Toca

Meaning of Name: The Crest

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. Close to the Carretera Turística.

Amount of Holes: 20+ vary with season. Area size about 2 kilometers.

Color Gradient: Amber, yellow, dirty-yellow. Slight blue shimmers for yellow at times. No known reddish tones, which is unusual.

Quality: Most of the material is workable for jewelry. It is overly very clear and strong.

Fossils: Not overabundant but generally of very good quality. Some of the world’s rarest enclosures have been found here: scorpions, several geckos, etc.

Notes: There seem to be three ‘vetas’ on top of each other, two of which are of low quality in all respects. The third, separated by just a few feet of neutral strata, is high grade, nearly through and through.

Most holes are also dug at steep angles, following the ‘veta’. They are also so deep that it seems as if the holes could someday exit valley-sides at the other side of the mountain.

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Name: Carlos Díaz

Meaning of Name: Name of former owner.

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. Close to the Carretera Turística. Eastward of La Toca.

Amount of Holes: 5+ varies with season. Area size about 1 kilometer.

Color Gradient: Mostly traditional amber, gold, yellow, lemon.

Quality: Most of the material is workable for jewelry.

Fossils: Sometimes. Several excellent pieces have been found here: a gecko and even a frog (if incomplete), etc

Notes: The mines are hard to get to. This has not made exploitation overly viable.

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Name: Villa Trina

Meaning of Name: Villa Trina (personal name)

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. Close to the Carretera Turística. Eastward of La Toca.

Amount of Holes: 5+ varies with season. Area size about 1 kilometer.

Color Gradient: Mostly traditional amber, gold. Sometimes very dark.

Quality: About 30% workable for jewelry.

Fossils: Sometimes.

Notes: The mines are hard to get to. This has not made exploitation overly viable.

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Name: Los Cacaos

Meaning of Name: The Cocoa Trees

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. Close to the Carretera Turística. Eastward of La Toca.

Amount of Holes: No holes at all. Open-pits, 2 to 5 meters deep.

Color Gradient: Mostly blue. Several deep blue, purple blue. Also red and whiskey-colored. A few of the ‘blue’ turn green after polishing.

Quality: Mostly workable for jewelry.

Fossils: Never.

Notes: The location, sediment and finds are unique. It is the world’s primary Blue Amber source and its circumstances need yet investigation. The strata itself is bluish, much like the stones. The stones found usually resemble potatoes. This is one of the primary sources for the Blue Amber available on ambarazul.com.

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Name
: Palo Alto

Meaning of Name: High Log

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. West-side of Carretera Turística. Mine has been closed.

Amount of Holes: N/A

Color Gradient: Amber, yellow, dark yellow.

Quality: N/A

Fossils: N/A

Notes: The mine has since been closed. Some of the largest specimens where found here and nearly all had inclusions. Many pieces are the primary study/exhibition objects in museums around the world. It is also the mine that has been dated due to its strata, setting the age-standard for Dominican Amber at 20-23 million years of age, somewhere at the “lower part Early Miocene, anywhere between the base of the Epoch and the top of the Globigerinita stainforthi Zone.” (Baroni Urbani & Saunders – 1980: 219)

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Name: Los Higos

Meaning of Name: The Figs

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. West-side of Carretera Turística.

Amount of Holes: One single-open pit.

Color Gradient: Mostly red, green and blue.

Quality: High quality. Good for drilling and polishing.

Fossils: Never.

Notes: Los Higos considered strongest amber. Make distinctive sound when struck together.

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Name: La Bucara

Meaning of Name: The Clay

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. West-side of Carretera Turística.

Amount of Holes: 5+ deep holes.

Color Gradient: Mostly red, green and blue , as well as amber, yellow in low grade.

Quality: High quality. Good for drilling and polishing.

Fossils: Sometimes.

Notes: Our newest video at blueamberchannel.com was shot entirely here.

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Name: El Arroyo

Meaning of Name: The Creek

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. West-side of Carretera Turística.

Amount of Holes: unknown. Possibly pure-chance-surface finds.

Color Gradient: Amber, yellow, sometimes red-green-blue.

Quality: High quality. Good for jewelry.

Fossils: None so far.

Notes: Very strong amber. Mine is worked rarely and little is found. Sometimes special finds do pop up, even large specimens. If they do, they are usually good quality.

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Name: Las Auyamas

Meaning of Name: The Pumpkins

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. West-side of Carretera Turística.

Amount of Holes: unknown. Possibly pure-chance-surface finds.

Color Gradient: Yellow.

Quality: Soft material, must be carefully worked.

Fossils: Most of the time.

Notes: Much of the material found here is soft in quality. This is both good and bad, depending on what it will be used for.

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Name: El Aguacate

Meaning of Name: The Avocado

Location: La Cumbre-area. South-side of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. West-side of Carretera Turística.

Amount of Holes: unknown. Possibly pure-chance-surface finds.

Color Gradient: Yellow, reddish-dark.

Quality: 50/50.

Fossils: Usually.

Notes: El Arroyo, Las Auyamas and El Aguacate are a series of holes in areas with the same name. How many holes exactly is a matter of speculation. Most ‘holes’ aren’t holes per se, but the pieces are found on the surface by pure chance in the indicated area.

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Name: La Cumbre

Meaning of Name: The Peak

Location: La Cumbre-area (obviously), east of the Carretera Touristica.

Amount of Holes: approx. 15.

Color Gradient: Mostly blue.

Quality: 50/50.

Fossils: Rare.

Notes: This is a new, privately owned mine, meaning the owners mine it themselves, not thought freelance-miners as most other mines. It is quickly becoming one of the better Blue Amber mines.

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Name: Juan de Nina

Meaning of Name: family name

Location: Puerto Plata area.

Amount of Holes: unknown. Estimated at 5+.

Color Gradient: Yellow and very light-yellow.

Quality: Less than 20% are useful. It is however very workable and polishes well.

Fossils: Sometimes.

Notes: Much of the enclosures seem to be sediment of the very strata it is found in.

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Name: El Naranjo

Meaning of Name: The Orange Tree

Location: Puerto Plata area.

Amount of Holes: unknown. Estimated at 5+.

Color Gradient: Yellow and very light-yellow.

Quality: Less than 20% are useful. It is however very workable and polishes well.

Fossils: Rarely.

Notes: In general identical to Juan de Nina. Also has much sediment enclosures.

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Name: Pescado Bobo

Meaning of Name: Silly Fish (seriously!)

Location: Puerto Plata area.

Amount of Holes: unknown. Estimated at 5+.

Color Gradient: Yellow, sometimes with green-blue fluorescence.

Quality: Usually 50/50.

Fossils: Sometimes.

Notes: It should be noted that Blue Amber from this mine seems to loose its coloration upon polishing. Mine is similar again to Juan de Nina and El Naranjo in sediment-enclosures. The Puerto Plata area seems to be well known for these. Much amber is also found near the ocean, and/or at beaches, carried here by rivers. This reminds strongly of Baltic amber.

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Citations: This compilation has been made with personal experience and using/completing the information from the following sources:

Baroni Urbani, C. & Saunders, J.B. (1980): The fauna of the Dominican Republic amber: the present status of knowledge. – Memorias, 9a geologica del Caribe, 1: 213-223; Santo Domingo. (Published 1983).

Schlee, D. (1980): Bernstein-Raritaeten (Farben, Strukturen, Fossilen, Handwerk). – 88 S. (mit 55 Farbtafeln); Staatl. Museum fuer Naturkunde) Stuttgart.

Schlee, D. (1984): Besonderheiten des Dominikanischen Bernsteins. – Stuttgarter Beitr. Naturk., C, 18: 63-71; Stuttgart.

Martínez, R. & Schlee, D. (1984): Die Dominikanischen Bernsteinminen der Nordkordillera, speziell auch aus der Sicht der Werkstaetten. – Stuttgarter Beitr. Naturk., C, 18: 79-84; Stuttgart.

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