The Inca Empire was once the largest empire in the pre-Columbian Americas, and it was also among the most sophisticated; nevertheless, it too fell to the Spanish conquistadors who invaded in the 16th century. Most of its precious gold artifacts and jewelry were melted down and taken to Spain, and their culture struggled to survive for centuries. However, their descendants who now live in the same land carry on their aesthetic traditions. Though pieces like ceremonial armor have fallen out of fashion, heavy earrings, necklaces, and intricate nose rings remain popular. With less gold available to them than in the past, modern Peruvian jewelry artisans will even resort to using materials like feathers, seashells, and alpaca hair.
The Inca people famously valued gold, and this was especially so in Machu Picchu, also known as the “Cradle of Gold” or “The Lost City of Gold”. The Incas thought that gold shone like the sun, and so to honor their main god, the Inti, they draped themselves in it and used it to decorate their temples. To them, gold was an indicator of social status, as well as of one’s devoutness and proximity to divinity. Therefore, commoners only wore it on special occasions, such as religious ceremonies and festivals. The more gold worn by an individual, the more blessed they were by their god; and because the Inca believed the Inca King to be the son of god, he wore the most gold of all. As such, conquered peoples were not allowed to wear it at all.
The fall of the Inca was followed by a decline in material culture, most notably in their once abundant gold ornaments. This would change in the 16th and 17th centuries; the Spanish discovered platinum and silver deposits in Inca land while mining for gold, though they regarded the materials as having little value, and discarded it. Consequently, the descendants of the Inca widely use platinum, as well as silver, in their jewelry, and they value it for its purity and beauty.
Ingenuity in design and the remarkable quality of materials used are the hallmarks of Peruvian jewelry. In the 1960s, Peru underwent a renaissance of traditional silversmithing, and today, skillful artisans create a diverse array of incomparable and unique silver jewellery that is influenced by the country’s many ethnic groups. Artisans that work for the fair trade group known as Allpa (a Peruvian craft trading company providing marketing assistance to artisan groups and family workshops throughout Peru) mainly work with 92.5 sterling silver and “alpaca metal”, which is an alloy of nickel, zinc, and copper. In addition to their silverwork, Peruvian craftsmen also design exquisite inlays from lapis lazuli, turquoise, black onyx, tagua nut and spondylus shell. The mosaics of the ancient Chimu, Huari, Lambayeque and Moche cut these materials and carved them into animals, mythological characters, plants and stars, and then embedded them in bone, gold, shell, silver, stone, or wood. These ancient traditions continue to manifest themselves in contemporary jewelry-making techniques.
Gunther Felix writes in “Creating Jewelry With a History: An Interview with Teodoro and the Melendez Family” that crafting jewelry in family workshops is a big part of modern Peruvian identity, and that the art and techniques are often passed down from generation to generation. However, as one artisan says, “I’m happy to have convinced both [my children] to continue what I’d started. Today, artisan-crafted jewelry is losing ground because the new generations aren’t interested in learning the art and this worries me. Especially because we can share our cultural roots and identity through handicrafts”. The artisan in question is Teodoro Melendez, a prominent craftsman who uses his knowledge of Peru’s pre-Hispanic art to influence his beautiful pieces, which often feature the unique motifs of old Peru. He says that he is “motivate[d]... to continue re-evaluating our Peruvian culture while we empower more artisans to continue this art that has fewer and fewer trainees”. Unfortunately, artisans like him struggle with the rising costs of materials and a decline in interest in jewelry, which is why it is vital to support local craftsmen and their work; if we do not, they will disappear.
At Terra Adorn, we invite our community to support family-owned businesses and art that empowers both the people who make it and the people who wear it.
Author: Elena Parapounsky, Terra Adorn Ethnographic Writer