Becoming Cuenca

Chordeleg: Ecuador’s Fine and Filigree Jewelry Destination

Mar 1, 2024

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~Marcel Proust

The French novelist and literary critic speaks of many expats in Cuenca. We are always seeking new eyes, be it moving to Cuenca, exploring our hometown on foot, or day trips to other parts of this beautiful country.

Maybe many of us do it because traveling is a great opportunity to step out of your comfort zone, reflect on the bigger picture, and learn about the world and yourself.

Henry Miller concurs: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

That is why day trips for us are so fun and enlightening. Some of the nearby places that I Joanna and I have been to are:

 

Biblián: 44 minutes from Cuenca

Chobsi and Sígsig: 80 minutes

Gualaceo: 50 minutes

Girón: 65 minutes

Ingapirca Archaeological Complex: 84 minutes

Nabón: 85 minutes

Parque Nacional Cajas – Laguna Toreadora: 47 minutes

Paute: 54 minutes

 

And then there is Chordeleg, which is an hour from Cuenca. Many expats hire their favorite driver (The vast majority of us do not own a car) while some go down to Terminal Terrestre to catch a very affordable bus to Chordeleg.

Chordeleg was founded as a parish on October 4, 1837, and was created as a canton on April 15, 1992. Cantons are the second-level subdivisions of Ecuador, below the provinces. Think of them as small counties as there are 221 cantons in the country, and Ecuador is only the size of Colorado (which has 64 counties).

It is the original silversmith town of Ecuador. The town’s name means “gold waterfall,” and received the name from the adherence of the Spanish Guild System, which was established centuries ago.

Guilds ruled many European crafts and trades from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Each guild regulated entry to its occupation, requiring everyone to become a guild member and also limiting admission to the guild.

They were meant to keep prices high by limiting production, suppressing competition, and blocking innovations and ideas that might disrupt their status quo.

When the Spanish were here, each town was required to have a specific skill or craft that they would produce.

The residents of Chordeleg were trained to be excellent metalworkers, and in time, the town evolved into an important silversmith center.

It is known that the Cañari people made gold and silver pieces, among them one of the most important relics is the Chunucari: The Golden Sun. It is probably Ecuador’s most memorable relic, which one Ecuadorian described as representing the country’s past “in the most evocative, inspirational way.” Today, Ecuador’s Central Bank uses the Chunucari as its logo.

And today, with a population of approximately 13,000 people, it does even more by working with other materials, including crystal and glass.

Since October 31, 2017, Chordeleg has been part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in the Crafts and Folk Art category. That classification highlights the town’s footwear manufacturing, gold, pottery, silversmithing, and toquilla straw weaving.

It is interesting to note that 58 percent of its gifted artisans are women. That is a curious fact considering Ecuador is a patriarchal society. And when the Spanish conquered what is now Ecuador, there were almost no specific guilds for women, so those institutions were always dominated by men.

The jewelry pieces that are created here are very delicate and often small. Most of the jewelry is Filigree style, an intricate artform with roots in jewelry design dating back more than five millennia. In many people’s minds, it is an Art Deco style that was popular in the early-twentieth century.

But the style goes a long way back. Archaeological finds in ancient Mesopotamia indicate that filigree was incorporated into jewelry from 3,000 BCE.

The Iberian Peninsula began to produce different filigree patterns in the 8th century, but in time in Spain, the filigree jewelry-making tradition became less relevant. But in Portugal it was perfected.

Despite the Spanish being less interested in it, this delicate dimension and femininity to all types of jewelry pieces is the heart of Chordeleg.

It is a style I fondly remember seeing in the gold souks of Saudi Arabia. Tent after tent had 23 carat gold filigree jewelry.

For those who don’t know, to make filigree jewelry, tiny pieces of raw silver are heated and melted in a crucible to create larger, oblong ingots from which the fine silver wire will be created.

The Chordeleg craftsman feeds the silver into a rolling mill, where the metal is finally fashioned into the shape of a wire. Working with their hands, they make the wire into thin strands.

The result is the finest, flexible silver wire used to bend into the curving shapes in filigree. These talented silversmiths twist the silver strand and dust it with silver powder. The next step is to mold it together with a soldering torch into the stunning pieces you see in the numerous windows of the joyerías.

Other pieces require molded shapes that are poured with molten silver. The Chordeleg artists have designed their own molds for their unique pieces.

My Cuencano friend, Martin, told me about the jewelry of Grand Master Félix Gilberto Jara and his family. Gilberto is considered one of the most renowned creators of filigree jewelry in the world.

Thanks to Martin, I found out that a century ago, Félix’s oldest brother, Octavio, decided at the age of 12 that he did not want to be a musician like his father. He wanted to be a craftsman. Together, Octavio and Félix opened the first jewelry workshop in Chordeleg.

Through the years, the two brothers shared their knowledge and skills, which helped Chordeleg to become the artisan center it is today.

With nearly six decades of experience, Félix’s son, Flavio, continues his work. Flavio works in a very small workshop behind the family’s jewelry store, Joyería Puerta del Sol (Joyería means jewelry), at Juan Bautista Cobos y Eloy Alfaro.

His imagination and talent weaves gold or silver threads, with clovers, orchids, floripondios to form earrings, rings, ornaments, and vases. One of his flower brooches that was for sale was made of a mind blowing 220 pieces of handcrafted silver filigree.

Of course, Flavio and many others make the traditional earrings, which are called candongas. It is a chandelier-type earring that is very popular in this part of the world. Every year since 2004, when Miss Universe was organized in Ecuador, goldsmiths of Chordeleg gave a pair of candongas to each of the contestants.

February is a great month to be in Chordeleg as it holds “Carnaval de La Candonga.” It is a good time in the center of town for food lovers, with traditional games and artistic shows.

World class jewelry is why you see streetlamp posts everywhere with giant replicas of the beautiful silver ornamentation. It is a beautiful touch to this lovely town.

Of course, there is more than silver and gold in Chordeleg. The streets are lined with all sorts of colorful offerings.

And then there is the abundant artwork.

To Joanna and me, Ecuador displays it with all its heart. And that is very evident in Chordeleg, when we visited this Azuay town.

Tucked in a covered public courtyard, off of Calle 23 Enero, is some wonderful and beautiful artwork.

Henry Moore said, “To be an artist is to believe in life.”

Life is all what it’s about in Chordeleg, especially this courtyard. There are four different, huge works of art to admire and enjoy.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time taking it all in as each piece had a story. The silver story of Chordeleg was my favorite. In the center of the artwork was Iglesia Matriz Chordeleg overlooking the town square.

Prominently displayed was filigree jewelry of Chordeleg. Various parts of life in this town were represented, including what appears to be a wedding celebration.

Another piece of art on the wall appeared to me to be Pre-Columbian style. This art encompasses the artefacts created by the indigenous peoples from the second millennium BCE to the time of the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Most buildings of that period, especially those carved of stone, were decorated with ornamental iconography depicting animals, gods, and great kings.

No doubt I will return to Chordeleg to these pieces of art for what Marc Chagall calls, “The expression of love.”

“Step into a world of vibrant beauty with Phragmipedium humboldtii ‘Fortuna’. Delight in the full splendor of its radiant, golden blooms as they burst forth.” ~Ecuagénera Orquideas Del Ecuador

Since you are making Chordeleg a destination, on your way back to Cuenca, stop in Gualaceo. Known by Ecuagénera, it is home to one of the world’s most recognized orchid growers. They propagate and export thousands of orchids annually.

That makes sense as Ecuador is among the world’s most orchid-rich countries. It has been reported Ecuador has 4,200 species of orchids, many of which are endangered. Remember: Ecuador is the most biodiverse country per square kilometer in the world.

This fantastic orchid company was founded in the 1950s by Ángel Andreetta, an Italian-born priest who arrived to set up a Salesians of Don Bosco mission. As a hobby, the priest began researching and collecting orchid species he found in the area.

A young Gualaceño, Mario Portilla, assisted Father Andreetta in his orchid avocation. That led to Mario’s younger brother, José, creating the company in 1992. Andretta became the adviser for the orchid enterprise.

If you can’t make it to Gualaceo, Ecuagénera has a store on the south side of Cuenca. That is where Joanna and I purchased our orchids that seem to bloom all of the time on our terrace.

Literally just down the road from Ecuagénera is La Casa de la Makana. Owned and operated by José Jiménez, a Gualaceo craftsman, he is helping to keep the art of Ikat alive.

According to the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, Ikat is a Malay-Indonesian term for a dyeing technique that is “one of the most complicated approaches to dyeing found anywhere in the world.”

All sorts of dyes are made from ‘natural’ sources that are created in lovely earthen pots.​ Lichens ​are ​for greens. ​Walnut shells make browns, and minerals from rocks produce greys​​. As for blue dye, Indigofera Tinctoria​ is used. It is a species of plant from the bean family.​ ​As you can see… No chemicals!​​!​

Ikat is a “resist technique” where a resist to the dye (traditionally cabuya cactus fiber from Ecuador) is tightly wrapped around parts of the yarn before dyeing the yarn to create a pattern that will appear later during the weaving. It is a rare technique as the pattern needs to be held in the weaver’s mind to ensure that the wrapped parts will translate into the correct pattern on the loom.

Ikat is one of the oldest forms of textile design, and although it is common to many cultures around the world, the weavings produced in Ecuador are considered to be among the best. Sadly, in Ecuador and other parts of the world, this fine tradition is in steady decline.

The work of José Jiménez is internationally recognized. The Queen of Spain has some of his macanas. José told a reporter once, “I have many recognitions, but they designated me as the best ‘Ibero-American Master in Fine Fabrics’ and for me that is a great responsibility, because this award that I have won is thanks to my grandparents and my parents, which forces me to continue with the legacy to leave my children.”

There are so many beautiful ​macanas to choose from in their upstairs store! Both Joanna and our good friend, Niki, spent a good amount of time trying to narrow down their choices.

Everyone should make the journey to La Casa de la Makana to appreciate the beautiful, handcrafted textiles! The colors and craftsmanship will have you wanting some for your home and to wear.

You will leave La Casa de la Makana with a huge smile on your face because you have experienced some of the great culture and history of this wonderful country.

And hopefully, you are bringing some of that back to your home from your travels and because this blog enticed you to travel outside of Cuenca.

“I read; I travel; I become.” ~Derek Walcott

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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And please! Have several reliable sources of information before making any decision about moving to Cuenca. I consider myself a trusted source, but you definitely need more than me for your big resettlement.

Salud, mi amigo.

 

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.