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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.