Detailed, light-weight & feminine; these words describe the beautiful filigree jewelry enjoyed by regal women around the world for thousands of years...
By Vanessa Hogan,
for Olga Fisch Folklore.
FROM ANATOLIA TO LA TOLITA
The most ancient vestiges of this technique found in South America belong to the Chavín Culture in Peru. (1200 B.C. – 400 A.D) Later, the mysterious Nazca Culture, also in Peru, also used this method. From there, it spread north to present day Ecuador and Colombia.
The ancient Ecuadorians made filigree jewelry and ornaments with silver, nickel, brass and platinum. The most astonishing example of filigree work in Pre-Colombian Ecuador can be found in the culture that flourished on the island of La Tolita (500 B.C. – 100 B.C.), off the coast of what is now the province of Esmeraldas, in northern Ecuador.
They made filigree earrings and rings that are amazing and unique due to their minuscule size: no bigger than 2 cm, all in perfectly minute detail.
CHORDELEG: A GOLD GUSH
However, this filigree wasn't exclusive to La Tolita, and it was also developed in southern Ecuador, in what is now the province of Azuay, particularly, in the area surrounding Chordeleg.
From 500 B.C. to 1500 B.C., the people who inhabited this area were acknowledged for their fine jewelry. According to legend, there are nearby 'huacas' (sacred worship grounds with their corresponding deities); a 'huaca' was typically full of offerings to the deity. In the case of Chordeleg, many archeological objects were found in the area –probably in what were once 'huacas'- and some of these objects are now on display at the local museum, located right on the town's main square.
Perhaps the descendants of the ancient people who filled the 'huacas' with silver and gold jewelry inherited this skill, for the small town of Chordeleg is now famous for its first-rate jewelry; so much so, that there are at least 20 jewelry shops around the plaza and along the main road! And, if the surrounding area is included in the count, there are around 70 jewelry shops! Such abundance of jewelry is not surprising when one considers that Chordeleg actually means 'chorro de oro', that is, 'gush of gold', because there are so many gold and silver mines in the area.
In Chordeleg, one can find a wide variety of jewelry pieces in this technique: from necklaces and chains with or without pendants, to bracelets, brooches, pins and rings, as well as many different types of earrings, like zarcillos (hoop earrings), candogas (pendant earrings) and mediaslunas (earrings with a half-moon shape). However, filigree is not only limited to jewelry, the artisans also make tiny decorative figurines and even jewelry boxes. The patterns of the intricate wirework are as varied as the array of products made: floral and geometric deigns, Pre-Colombian, colonial and modern motives, and even miniature airplanes! Jewelry is such an important industry in Chordeleg, that the artisans want to always guarantee their customer's satisfaction; therefore, if you buy your jewelry piece in one of the town's many jewelry shops, you will receive a warranty seal, through which the jeweler certifies that the piece was made with 14 or 18 carat gold, or 9,25 or 9,75 carat silver.
TWISTING, LACING AND POLISHING
Filigree pieces have the advantage that they are lighter than pieces made of solid metal because they use less material; this is due to the thinness of the metallic thread and the empty spaces that are left among the pieces. One might therefore assume that a gold filigree earring, for example, would cost less than a solid gold one; however, what is saved in weight and material is compensated with huge mounts of the skill and patience that are required to make these pieces. This technique is indeed intricate and complicated, and involves many steps: melting, flattening, threading, twisting, lacing, structuring, welding, sanding and polishing.
First of all, the metal is melted. Then, the melted metal is passed through a roller several times until it is flattened into a fine sheet that is only a few millimeters thick. Next, the artisan uses pliers and tweezers to pass the fine sheet of metal through a machine called a 'threader'. This machine is made of steel and has holes of varying dimensions, through which the sheet passes; this is how fine threads are achieved. Once these threads are obtained, the jeweler further manipulates and thins them out over a flat surface by twisting the threads until they are evened out. The next step is the 'lacing', in which the threads are flattened into a kind of lace; this part of the process can be done mechanically in a roller or manually with a hammer.
After the metal has been melted, flattened, threaded, twisted and laced, the piece is almost finished; now it needs a structure. For this, the artisans use small tweezers and their fingernails to make several folds to give the piece a 'body'; then they cut the leftover threads with pliers. At this point, although the piece will be tight, to give the joints more strength it must be welded. The pieces are welded with tiny tools often built by the artisans themselves; in the case of silver pieces, they use a mix of silver filings and borax to weld the pieces. And last but not least, the pieces are sanded with a delicate file and then polished with sulfuric acid.1
PENDANT EARRINGS FIT FOR QUEENS
Although filigree pendant earrings have traditionally decorated the lovely women known as cholas cuencanas, this type of jewelry owes its recent popularity to the Miss Universe contest held in Ecuador in 2004. The Miss Universe Organization commissioned the jewelers of Chordeleg to make 100 pairs of filigree pendant earrings for the Miss Universe candidates. This helped to increase the popularity of filigree jewelry. Now, about 70% of the town's population is dedicated to producing filigree jewelry, which had been, up to that point, a form of jewelry that was sadly in decline due to the laboriousness that the process requires. So, thanks to these beauty queens, the filigree jewelry techniques sit once again on her proper thrown.
• Joyería en el Azuay, Aguilar, María Leonor; CIDAP, Cuenca: 1988
Photographs: Iván Ceballos