Larimar, the Dominican Republic’s Unique Stone

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Daniel Santacruz felt drawn to larimar, a distinctive stone as blue as the clearest waters of the Caribbean and known to come from a single source: a mountain in the country’s southwestern coastal province of Barahona. Now, the 45-year-old singer-songwriter has a Latin Grammy on his shelf for his 2020 album “Larimar.”

“I have always been in love with the stone,” he said in a video interview. “It’s unique in the world; you can only get it in the Dominican Republic.”

Not only did he write a poem of a song — the first line of the romantic bachata translates as “Let me swim in your eyes, blue as larimar” — but he also made it the album’s title track. And he has been working on a documentary to tell the story of the semiprecious stone that was his inspiration.

“For me, it means a lot of things,” said Mr. Santacruz, who divides his time between Miami and the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo. “It means cultural identity; it means love; it means good energy, good vibes.”

Larimar, a semiprecious stone found only in the Dominican Republic, is mined from a mountain in the country’s southwestern coastal province of Barahona.Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York Times

For many Dominicans larimar is even becoming something of a patriotic symbol, part of the country’s national brand. Successive administrations have sought to raise its profile, declaring larimar the official national stone in 2011 and, in 2018, establishing an annual National Larimar Day.

Dominican jewelry designers say they are seeing increased local interest in the stone, and exports of larimar jewelry have been growing.

The government has said it wants to create more jobs around the stone, but first, it has a more pressing concern: improving safety for the hundreds of artisanal miners who follow the veins of larimar deep into the mountain. There were two fatalities in April, prompting officials to shut the mine temporarily for safety improvements.

The work had been planned, according to Miguel Ángel Díaz, deputy minister of mines in the country’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, but the timetable for the shutdown was accelerated after the deaths. He stressed that the administration of President Luis Abinader, who took office in August 2020, already had been addressing safety concerns.

“We are aware that we have to improve the safety and the working conditions of these people,” Mr. Díaz said in a video interview.

Onécimo Betances Gómez, 23, an artisan, shapes and polishes larimar in his workshop in Bahoruco.Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York Times

Francisco Alberto Gómez, a larimar producer who belongs to one of the local cooperatives that operates the mine, credits the current government with its attention to mine safety. “There are accidents that are unavoidable, that only God could prevent from happening,” he said.

But Miguel Ángel Féliz, the administrator of a local school for larimar artisans, believes that the authorities could have done more. “They have taken measures, but these have not been sufficient. They weren’t sufficient to prevent the deaths,” said Mr. Féliz, who himself worked as a miner until 1990.

The title track from Daniel Santacruz’ Latin Grammy award-winning 2020 album, “Larimar,” begins, “Let me swim in your eyes, blue as larimar.”Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York Times

A Sense of “Dominican-ness”

Only a few years ago, most young Dominican women thought of larimar as something their grandmothers wore, said Jorelis Caridad, 32, part of the second generation involved in a family jewelry enterprise called Ambasa. But she said she had seen a recent shift — intensified by the strong “shop local” movement that got its start early in the pandemic — as more of her peers have begun to explore what it means to be Dominican.

“In expressing our Dominican-ness, we look for things that only we have,” Ms. Caridad said.

Larimar fits that bill. The jewelry designer Mónica Varela, 29, said she had made it her mission to create contemporary pieces showcasing the national stone. And when she sees someone wearing one of her pendants, she feels a sense of pride beyond her brand, she said, because “we’re also wearing a piece of our land and representing who we are as Dominicans.”

Larimar (pronounced lah-ri-MAR) is a variety of silicate mineral called pectolite, formed tens of millions of years ago by underwater volcanic activity. It is not the only pectolite, but it is the only one known to have a blue palette — the result of hydrothermal fluids flowing into cavities in volcanic rock that have collected a particular mix of minerals along the way. The stone varies in color: Generally, the deeper the blue, the rarer and more expensive the piece, and it can have swirls of sea foam white, traces of green and sometimes even a splash of rusty red, as well as patterns that look a bit like waves.

Dominican jewelry designers say they are seeing increased local interest in larimar, and exports have been growing. Here, bracelets designed by Mónica Varela have larimar ornaments.Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York Times

The stone’s ability to “encapsulate so many shapes, so many colors, so much diversity” is part of its appeal for Joarla Caridad, a younger sister of Jorelis, who designs jewelry under her own name. One of her signature designs, called the Pool Ring ($350 to $1,400), has a little silver or gold ladder curling over the edge of the setting to a flat piece of larimar that looks like the surface of a swimming pool. She said she came up with the idea when she was studying in London one winter and “longing to be in those crystal-clear, warm waters of my country.”

The stone’s resemblance to water also has made it popular with tourists wanting souvenirs of their beach vacations, Jorelis Caridad said. Most are likely to spend less than $200 on a piece, she said, while higher-end versions, set in silver or gold, can sell for thousands of dollars.

The jeweler Joarla Caridad, at her store inside Museo Mundo de Ambar in Santo Domingo, said she came up with one of her signature designs, the Pool Ring, while studying in London.Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York Times

Laura Tosato, a Santo Domingo-based jewelry designer known for her larimar dragonflies, credits the government’s promotional efforts with helping to drive an increased local demand for larimar in 2020, when tourism dried up overnight. “Who was going to be thinking about a piece of jewelry in the middle of a pandemic?” she asked. She even started to sell face masks with larimar accents.

Exports of larimar jewelry have taken off in recent years, with the exception of one flat year, 2020. The Export and Investment Center of the Dominican Republic, known as ProDominicana, estimates the value of larimar jewelry exports in 2021 at more than $12 million, up from about $7.5 million in 2020 and just $1.1 million in 2018. An estimated 99 percent of these exports went to the United States, according to ProDominicana.

César Féliz, in his family’s workshop Taller de Larimar Vanessa, said he found working with larimar addicting: “Every time you do a job, you want to invent something new and figure out how you can do it.”Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York Times

Discovery and Rediscovery

The first historical mention of the stone that would become known as larimar came in a letter written by a priest to his archbishop in 1916 — on Nov. 22, now National Larimar Day — but it was not mined at the time.

Then, in 1974, a woman who had found a piece of the stone on a beach in Barahona Province brought it into a jewelry shop in Santo Domingo owned by Miguel Méndez, the person who ultimately would be credited with the stone’s rediscovery.

“At first, I thought it was turquoise,” Mr. Méndez, now 83, said in a phone interview from Santo Domingo. And he thought the stone had come from the sea. But with the help of an American geologist who was a Peace Corps volunteer, Mr. Méndez found the source: It had traveled by river from a mountain a few miles inland.

Eventually, he sent a sample to the Smithsonian Institution, the American museum and research complex, which identified it as a pectolite. Mr. Méndez said he traveled to the United States to buy equipment to grind the stone, which is harder than amber, coral and other materials familiar to Dominican artisans at the time. He also famously came up with the name for what locals had simply called the “blue stone,” combining Larissa, his daughter’s name, with mar, the Spanish word for sea. (Ms. Méndez died last year at age 51.)

Mr. Méndez said he had been surprised by the growth of the stone’s popularity. “Larimar is now known throughout the world,” he said.

It has certainly become the mainstay of the economy in Bahoruco, a municipal district in Barahona that the country’s booming tourism industry has largely passed by. The coastal town of Bahoruco, the district seat a few miles from the larimar mine, has more than 60 workshops where artisans shape and polish the stones, according to a government survey.

César Féliz, who has been a lapidary in Bahoruco for about 20 years, described working with larimar as a kind of addiction. During a recent phone interview, he said he had been crafting a pair of earrings shaped like ocean waves and cut from a single piece of stone, a commission from a German jewelry designer.

“Every time you do a job, you want to invent something new and figure out how you can do it,” Mr. Féliz said. (Miguel Féliz, the artisan school administrator, is his brother.)

Decades ago, the area depended mostly on agriculture and fishing, but now the economy revolves around larimar, according to Mr. Gómez, the larimar producer, who leads the local governing board. Two years ago he was elected to the position, the equivalent to that of mayor of the district, which he said had a population of 6,500 to 8,500.

Laura Tosato, a Santo Domingo-based jewelry designer, is known for her dragonfly rings made with larimar.Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York Times

“If we find ourselves without larimar,” he said in a phone interview, “I do think we will survive, because God will give us the opportunity to do so, but without larimar it would be a very difficult life for these communities.”

The stone has made it possible for many people to own houses and support their families, he said, although he also acknowledged that it led people like him to drop out of school and begin mining.

Mr. Gómez, 40, has been around the mine since he was a boy, at first tagging along with his uncles and doing chores like gathering firewood; by 16, he was part of a bucket brigade to remove rubble. He and some cousins now employ 40 to 50 miners and he also is treasurer of a local cooperative that, in 1985, was given a 75-year concession to the site. The mine now is operated by three such groups.

A lot has changed since he became a miner, Mr. Gómez said — not only, he continued, because children no longer work there but also because the work is very different.

In the early years of production, he and others explained, veins of larimar could be found on or near the surface. Over time, however, miners have followed the veins to ever-greater depths, creating a network of horizontal and vertical shafts in the mountain and greatly increasing the perils.

A miner descending into a tunnel to dig for larimar in 2015. Credit…Ezequiel Abiu Lopez/Associated Press

Safety Problems

“Underground mining is unsafe around the whole world, and when it is artisanal, it is riskier,” said Rolando Muñoz, who leads the General Directorate of Mining, a branch of the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

The larimar mine is rudimentary, covering an area of approximately 12 acres. Much of the muddy, sweaty work is done with pickaxes and shovels, though some portable power tools are used, too. Many of the laborers are Haitian, some of whom have work visas and some of whom do not, according to Mr. Muñoz.

Over the years the government has brought in experts to teach the techniques of underground mining, and, in 2014, a fortified tunnel that extends a quarter of a mile into the mountain was opened. Passageways or galleries that branch out from the tunnel give miners access to larimar deposits without the need to descend long vertical distances.

But the tunnel, originally designed to be a half a mile long, was only partly completed, so it does not provide access to all the mining operations and some members of the local cooperatives still use their own entrances, dug into the mountainside.

Some YouTube videos posted by casual visitors show workers crawling through cramped spaces and descending into long shafts hundreds of feet below the surface, wearing little or no safety gear and often without shoes.

Mr. Gómez, the larimar producer, said the authorities required helmets, boots, gloves and other protective equipment, but he added that most of the miners did not like to use them.

According to Mr. Muñoz of the General Directorate of Mining, 18 people are known to have died in accidents at the larimar mine in the past two decades. Causes have included asphyxiation, cave-ins, falls and electrical accidents.

Questions have been raised about the control exercised over the larimar mining operation.Credit…Ezequiel Abiu Lopez/Associated PressInside a tunnel, which is supported by wooden planks and lined with tubes that deliver oxygen to the miners.Credit…AP

The two recent fatalities occurred less than three weeks apart. According to interviews and local news accounts, a Dominican miner named Kelin Aquino Galván, 38, was hit in the leg by a falling rock and died of internal bleeding at the hospital.

The second fatality was a Haitian worker identified in the official death report as 25-year-old Josep Valdes, who was said to have gone into the mine after operating hours and fell to the bottom of a shaft.

By the last week in April, mining activity had been halted. Officials said the area was being cleared of the ramshackle structures used for storage and to feed and sometimes even house many of the laborers. Once a contractor is selected, they said, the site will be fenced and a checkpoint built, to be staffed by members of the military ordered to ensure that only authorized personnel with newly issued smart badges will gain access.

“That will allow us to have control over who enters and leaves the area,” Mr. Díaz, the deputy minister, said, adding that this step would at least minimize the possibility of people entering the mine outside working hours.

He said that, once work begins, the civil works project would take about a month and a half to complete and would cost several hundred thousand dollars.

In the longer term, Miguel Peña, a ministry official who advises Mr. Abinader on mining matters, estimated that the government needs to invest $8 million to $10 million to achieve “minimum” industrial safety standards.

“Over these last 40 years — and mainly in the last 20 years — there was no real control exercised over that mining operation,” Mr. Peña said in an interview. “The consequence of that is the chaos that we find ourselves in today.”

The work would include reinforcing the existing tunnel and building another one at a lower level, according to Mr. Peña. While geotechnical studies still need to be done, he said he believes such a project could be completed in three to four years and would not require shutting down the mine.

Also, there has been no scientific evaluation of how many more years the mine may produce larimar, or whether there are other sources nearby, or even in other countries, Mr. Díaz said. “It’s possible that tomorrow a new area appears that has similar minerals, or minerals with the same colors, but up until now, it is only in this area where this pectolite appears,” he said.

César Féliz, showing pieces of low-quality stone, says not all larimar is good enough — or blue enough — to work with. Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York Times

The Value Chain

How the Dominican Republic can make the most of what seems to be a unique resource has been discussed for years.

In 2014, the government opened the school in Bahoruco to train local artisans not only to work with larimar but also to learn silversmithing and entrepreneurial skills. The agency that runs the school also provides low-interest loans to help the artisans start businesses.

Ms. Tosato, the jewelry designer, said local artisans needed more government support and better access to high-quality larimar. So much of the stone is leaving the country in raw form, she said, that “they’re not leaving anything for Dominicans.”

As an example, she described an international jewelry show in Miami where she said she counted 30 stands that sold larimar, yet hers was the only one with production in the Dominican Republic.

Officials continue to adjust export regulations, but they say supply and demand are big factors driving exports.

The store inside Escuela Taller y Museo Larimar displays the work of local artisans.Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York TimesMiguel Ángel Féliz, the administrator of the local school for larimar artisans.Credit…Tatiana Fernández for The New York Times

While Dominican artisans and jewelers want to ensure that the best larimar stays in the country, Mr. Díaz said, the local market is not large enough to absorb all the stone produced by the mine. And without enough local buyers, larimar producers say they need to export raw stone to fund their operations.

Mr. Díaz said the government aimed to further develop the value chain so that more larimar can be sold and processed in the country, an effort that he said would require coordination among government institutions. One issue, for example, is the need for financing: Many artisans could produce a larger inventory of finished pieces if they had the capital to buy more stone.

Mr. Gómez, for his part, would like the government to provide loans to larimar producers, using the larimar as collateral, and require foreign buyers to process the stone in the Dominican Republic. He said that model would give producers the funds and the incentive to develop a network of artisans who could turn the stone into finished products for the export market.

“That would create a chain that would bring a lot of benefit to the larimar sector, and even to the country, and bring extraordinary value to the larimar,” he said.