Silver has always been my metal of choice. Simple. Elegant. Affordable.
Filigree silver jewelry, in my mind, was an Art Deco style that was popular in the early 1900s. I never gave the light, airy, lacy look much thought. It seemed dated. Old.
In Ecuador, filigree jewelry, both silver and gold, IS old. And my mind has been forever changed.
Known as filigrana in Spanish, filigree is a metal work formed of gold or silver threads, united and soldered with delicate perfection. Interestingly, filigrana also refers to a transparent mark or mark made on paper, like a watermark.
In Chordeleg, a mountain village just 30 miles from my home in Cuenca, craftspeople have certainly made their mark, although a more permanent one, with filigree jewelry.
On a recent trip with Polylepsis Tours, my friends and I spent time visiting the silver shops of Chordeleg. There we met Flavio Jara, whose family has crafted precious metals into intricate wearable designs for several generations. He began learning the trade at age 12, 50 years ago.
With a flourish of his hand, Flavio invited us into his workshop. It is a neatly organized, quiet, but busy place behind his shop, El Puerta Del Sol. He is ready for his guests, having fashioned a sort of mini tour by way of a sectioned wooden box. Each box displays silver in its various forms, from raw cylinders to finely crafted finished pieces.
He stands, motioning us to a rustic steel machine where all filigree is birthed, he says. When his father began creating jewelry 80 years ago, Flavio explains, he used a small iron plate in which various holes had been drilled. The jeweler pulled the soft silver – or gold – wire through the holes at random, guessing at the diminishing sizes until the strand was as fine as he could get it. Now Flavio uses a steel draw plate with carefully calibrated holes, each marked in tiny measurements. The difference – and speed – in which a piece can be created is… well it can’t be compared, he says, throwing his hands in the air and laughing.
While the calibrated holes make for more precise measurements, the silver – or gold – still is perfected the old fashioned way. Flavio gives us an opportunity to pull threads through the plates, with a pair of pliers. It is harder than it looks!
In his demonstration box, Flavio shows us the frame he will use for the threads of silver he has just created. Thicker pieces of silver or gold are bent until the desired shape is achieved. The jeweler then curls, twists or tightly winds silver into shapes that are gently placed inside the framework and flash soldered into place.
Some pieces require a zig zag. Flavio proudly cradles the palm-size machine invented by his father 30 years ago. Until then, the zig zag pattern required painstaking measurements and careful handmade bends in the wire. Now, he runs the wire through his father’s invention and “Mira!” he says, gleefully pointing out the bent thread emerging from the tiny machine. The zig zag is created in moments.
I watch his large fingers expertly twist a tiny circle and drop it into its frame. I am amazed he does not fumble. Deftly moving tiny pieces of silver from one piece to the next, he proudly demonstrates what will be a finished piece. He points to a flower – which will become a brooch. He beams, delighted at our astonishment when he explains it will be made of 220 pieces of handcrafted silver filigree.
The demonstration over, Flavio answers a few questions, then invites us into his sparkling store. Half museum, half retail operation, the artwork and jewelry are mesmerizing. There is an intricately built evening bag graced with a tiny hummingbird. In the window is a collection of vehicles – a plane, a motorcycle, and an ancient buggy. Now armed with the knowledge of creating filigree, we can’t take our eyes off of the complex works.
We linger over the showcase of candonga earrings – the traditional chandelier-type earrings popular in this culture. Even the light poles in this charming town boast oversize candongas! We make our selections from the hundreds of earrings and rings, all weighed for the price, and none costing us more than $18.
We emerge into the sunlight with treasure more precious for the experience of watching gifted hands create, than for its physical beauty. We will never look at filigree the same.