SIMOJOVEL, Mexico – Mexican amber is a gem of great value given its age, color variety, the arduous work required to extract it and the craftsmanship that goes into the jewelry and art made from it.
Simojovel, a town in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, is the site of an ancient amber deposit dating from the late Oligocene and Early Miocene epochs some 25-30 million years ago.
Some 80 percent of the town’s residents speak the indigenous languages of Tzotzil, Zoque or Tzeltal and 70 percent of the population engages in amber mining.
Mexican amber, known to locals as “apozonalli” – which means “water bubbles” – is mined 400 meters (1,312 feet) into underground tunnels only 1.5-2 m (4-5.6 ft) high, where the oxygen content is low and workers often have to squat, kneel or even lie down to extract the precious resin.
Despite the risks involved, men, teens and even children work from 7 am to 4 pm every day in the mines in search of what is considered the world’s hardest fossil resin.
Herminio Hernandez Perez, 13, started accompanying his father into the tunnels to take part in this age-old trade.
“I’m still learning,” Herminio said, recounting how his father and uncles taught him everything about the mining operation from dumping dirt to chipping away at the deposits with a mallet to get at the amber.
But it’s a painstaking process, and it sometimes takes miners months to find a really good piece of translucent amber, which can have a very wide variety of colors, including yellow, red, cognac, green and even black.