Gold Artisans, Filigree Artists of Colombia

Jan 9 16:43 2009 Carlos Sastoque Print This Article

Traditional gold jewelry made in a small colonial town in Colombia.

“ In the first steps the skillful worker receives the stone which has been reduced to dust,Guest Posting..rubs it over a wide tilted plank pouring water over it all the time; then, the earthly matter in it, disolved by the water, runs down the plank while the one that has the gold in it stays on the board due to its weight. Repeating this a number of times, first he rubs it softly and pressing lightly with loose-texture sponges it takes away the porous and earthly matter until all is left is pure gold dust”

When I saw Aicardo López working it was like no 2000 years have passed since Diodoro of Sicily, the Greek historian from the 1st century b.C, described like this how the ancient egipcians extracted gold from the bowels of the Earth. Aicardo’s tools, a man in his 50s with the tan and wrinkles of someone used to working under the sun, were so traditional like the egipcian’s: a type of beaten wooden box, over it a strainer for the larger stones and the only testimonies we were in the 21st century were a construction worker helmet that served as a water bucket and a shovel. There, at the Cauca river shore a few meters from the ancient Puente de Occidente, that minute figure bent down over his tools and somewhat imprisoned by the storm clouds and the mountains that form the river canyon, was a faithful reminder of the indian tradition of paying tribute to their gods through gold.

Of all Colombian indian gold tribes none settled this part of the mid-Cauca river valley. Southward up the same valley the Quimbaya indians created their beautiful figurines by the lost wax process. They molded their figurines in beeswax covering it with a layer of  clay and putting all this in a fire the wax melted out of the clay block leaving the empty shape inside ready to pour in the tumbaga, a copper and gold alleation just like it’s done nowadays, maybe taking the form of one of the famous ‘poporos’ inspired in nature. North of the town of Santa Fe de Antioquia  was the indian culture of Urabá who molded also natural representations, specially animals with raised tails or two-headed birds. However the first filigree instructors, the art of creating figures with gold thread, in Santa Fe de Antioquia weren’t the indian gold artisans but people from Mompox where curiously gold was not mined but hoarded up in the era when the Spaniards stripped their colonies from all the gold they could gather. Through time the Santa Fe citizens learned filigree many times passed from generation to generation like Anibal Ramos tells it: “I have been doing this for around 18 years. This is like hereditary. My brother taught me whom was taught by an uncle himself. If any of my children has this talent then I’ll teach him too.”

Filigree is an ancient art and the greeks practiced already in the 5th century b.C after working with granulation where tiny gold balls are set up to form delicate designs in relief.

At the Jaime Benitez shop, one of the traditional last names of Santa Fe filigree, an artisan passes a gold bar some 2 ½ inches long through a machine with rollers similar to a spaghetti cutter. The gold bar, one of the most malleable metals in the world, stretches and stretches unimaginably to the point when it becomes a thick thread that the artisan then passes through ruby discs with different callibers until what was a small gold bar is now a thread as thin as hair. Now the true art begins. With this thread many things can be done. Braided for example, it gives a beautiful relief. Benitez, meanwhile, is working on a ring for a ‘quinceañera’. Life for the people of Santa Fe is marked like a pendulum by their gold jewels. The newborn receives a gold bracelet, then comes First Communion, fifteen years in the case of girls, graduation, marriage. In Santa Fe’s old women’s ears and hands are represented all the special days of their lives. The traditional designs reign: the ‘woven small ball’, that “is not seen anywhere else, everything we do: the ‘little rose’, the ‘little tomatoes’, all that comes from antiquity” Jaime Benitez explains.

And the work is meticulous. Gold grains as well as tiny gold thread rings are handled, and where two figures touch each other a millimetric golden solder joins the parts. Little by little, minute by minute, a ring gets its final shape. Four hours of work leave a ring blackened by the solder flame. Still ahead is polishing and cleaning. It’s not easy work. Like Anibal Ramos said to me when I asked if he was ever to teach his kids the filigree art: “This is a very ungrateful job, the artisan works too hard and never gets from what to live”

After working 6 hours digging and filtering, Aicardo Lopez got his day retribution and before the afternoon rain placed a slip of paper with 3 grams of gold dust inside an El Rey matchbox. It was not a bad day for him; he will get 11.000 pesos (around six dollars) for that quantity. It didn’t matter to him that the next day that gold would become a handmade filigree jewel whose value for the owner will be more than double what it paid for it.  

Gold Artisans

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Carlos Sastoque
Carlos Sastoque

I am a professional photographer who usually writes the text for my assignments. My work has been published around the world.

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