Vilcabamba: The Jeweler and The Leatherworker – Vilcabamba, Ecuador
(We’re currently in Bolivia awaiting our flight to Uyuni, but this is a post I’ve been wanting to write for awhile, so here you go!)
We were mighty lucky to find that when we first arrived in Vilcabamba, it was feria day. Feria days are the local market times, often they are when the farmers come from surrounding towns bringing their produce in to sell. In Vilcabamba, though, it was actually a feria of artisans! There were about 15 stalls, most of which had the sorts of things we see most everywhere: beaded touristy stuff and touristy woven-wear, but one stall was quite different. Cristina, a local Vilcabamban, had a display of really unique brass jewelry with crushed stone inlay (a la Beate Degen, who spoke at the Seattle Metals Guild a year ago) as well as a variety of other pieces: wrapped pieces of stone, fabricated brass pipes, etc. An amazing range of designs, so we just had to strike up a conversation!
It turns out that she and her husband Lenin, a leatherworker, set up a stall at the feria every weekend as that’s when the most tourists arrive. This particular Saturday had her there alone with her new baby as her husband was busy. Cristina was incredibly nice to chat with so I got up my courage and asked if perhaps Anner and I could come visit her studio some time! I think she was quite flattered that we would ask (I had told her I was a jeweler in the US) and we made plans to come visit in a couple of days.
Cristina and Lenin (pronounced “Lenny”) work out of their tiny rented house. No separate workshop there – their older daughter took the baby into their bedroom when we came visiting and they worked while we chatted in their living room/studio! I was stunned to learn they had only been working at their crafts for a year and a half! Lenin does some incredible leather work with lots of repousse (is that the correct term if working in leather rather than metal?). He makes books, boxes, bags…great stuff! It’s unfortunate he doesn’t have a way to sell in the states as he could make MUCH more money for them. I guess that’s true of most every artist down here… Anyway, I asked lots of questions and he showed me a bit of how he does his work. Among other things, he makes his own dyes! Definitely made me interested in trying my hand at tooling some leather!
Like I found in Saraguro, almost all their tools are hand-made. There just isn’t a place to buy much nearby. If they want to buy more brass, they have to travel all the way to Lima, Peru. For silver or leather, it’s over to Quito or other towns in Ecuador, most a few hours away! Reminds me AGAIN how lucky we are in the US with our access to pretty much anything we want/need. A month ago a friend donated a bunch of jewelry tools to them, so they now have a flex shaft and a polishing machine, but still not a lot in terms of tools. They pretty much do everything by hand. I was glad I could give them one suggestion: use a bur in their flex shaft to sign their work to make it more valuable. Really nice to pass along tips that have been given to me during my learning.
Cristina’s work would fit in quite well up in Seattle. She’s mostly creating brass earrings and pendants (all hand-fabricated) and then crushing her own stones (again, she has to travel to get them) using a mortar and pestle before inlaying them. Her inlay is done with a simple glue and then she wet sands them by hand through progressive grits of sand paper (she only has one of each grit) before giving the metal a final polish. Lots of hand-labor, but they come out looking great!
We bought a few of Cristina’s pieces and I wish we could have had a way to transport some of Lenin’s, but that’s the way of the backpacker – jewelry fits, bigger leather work not so much. Still, I’ll remember his work in photos and I’ll definitely remember spending a truly wonderful couple of hours with a truly wonderful couple!!!