On Colombia's Magdalena River, Finding a Master in the Art of Filigree Jewelry

Wednesday, Oct 24, 2018
by Jordan Salama ’19

Jordan Salama ’19, PLAS Certificate Student

Simon Villanueva, master filigree jeweler in Mompox, Colombia  Photo by Jordan Salam

Simon Villanueva, master filigree jeweler in Mompox, Colombia

Photo by Jordan Salama

SIMON VILLANUEVA lay a thread of shiny silver wire across the width of his decaying wooden workbench. He cut the strand into six pieces of equal length, and used pincers to twirl them into tiny, tightly-wound bulbs no larger than small beads before carefully wedging each of them into the frame of a six-petal flower.

“I’ve gotten used to having poor vision,” Simon told me as he put on his glasses. The oldest jeweler in town has been perfecting his craft for seventy-seven years, and has largely learned to work with just his hands at this point—an ability that has served him well as his vision has faded with age. He’s eighty-nine, but looks twenty years younger. Still, he is able to twist and plait fine strands of silver to produce the looping, intricate designs of his imagination: little fish earrings, a bracelet with a flower pendant, a necklace carrying a small sombrero vueltiao (the signature hat of Colombia). No two pieces are the same, and he keeps hundreds of his glittering, unsold ornaments in a glass case on shelves laden with red velvet padding.

One of Simon’s creations, a sombrero vueltiao Photo by Jordan Salama

One of Simon’s creations, a sombrero vueltiao

Photo by Jordan Salama

The style is called filigree, and this isolated colonial town—called Mompox, located in the rural swamplands of northern Colombia—is the only place in South America where it is still regularly practiced as an industry. Thought to have originated in Mesopotamia and Egypt, filigree was used extensively in the Greek and Roman Empires and became widespread in East Asia and India, where it is most commonly found today. Filigree made its way to Mompox during the colonial era in Latin America, when the Spanish brought it with them from Andalusia, their main seaport and a worldly region with heavy Arabic influences. Mompox was a goldsmith’s town, due to its strategic location on the Magdalena River as a major Spanish colonial outpost during the gold and silver trade.

Over the course of four weeks this summer, I travelled the length of the Magdalena, the most important river in Colombia, from near its source high in the Andes to its mouth in the port city of Barranquilla on the Caribbean Sea—over 900 miles in total. I interviewed Colombians like Simon whose lives are tied to the river in all sorts of ways, and who are carrying out extraordinary projects along the its banks.

Making filigree jewelry Photo by Jordan Salama

Making filigree jewelry

Photo by Jordan Salama

The characters shared with me stories of life in the Magdalena River basin, considered by many to be the heart of Colombia, as the country undergoes a drastic transition from a violent civil war to a time of peace. In my senior thesis, a nonfiction story featuring both hopeful and difficult moments with Colombians from all walks of life, I’ll examine what the river represents for each of them—in terms of what their country once was, and what it hopes to be in the future.

Such interactions involve an elderly man who has been building artisanal wooden canoes on the banks of the river for over 70 years, men who work before dawn to harvest sand and sediment from the riverbed for the country’s cement factories, biologists who are studying the river’s wild hippopotamuses (the only members of the species living in the wild outside of Africa) and the overall ecological deterioration of the river, the manager of a once-grand but now-closing riverside hotel, the man behind Colombia’s famous traveling library on donkeys, the kite-fishermen of Bocas de Ceniza, and of course Simon Villanueva, who is widely considered to be the filigree master of Mompox.

“You don’t think about time when you’re doing this,” Simon said to me as he put together the small silver flower, not larger than a quarter. His area consists of only a rocking chair and his jeweler’s table on the covered front porch of his red-and-green house, where he works seven days a week, from six in the morning until he can’t anymore for lack of light.

It’s a loud, social block—street vendors pass by at all hours hawking fresh cheeses and meat, and motorcycles rumble by on their way to the main town square. An elderly woman sits in her own rocking chair on the porch across the street, beneath hanging wicker baskets for sale, gazing off into the distance and not really interacting with anyone but for the occasional smile she sends Simon’s way. Simon remembered when a group of gypsies sold horses from tents on a nearby corner in the 1950s, and when Arabs delivered textiles door-to-door. All of this has, for years, easily distracted him from his work, but that’s part of the fun. As focused as he may have been on completing a particular, delicate design, he never failed to look up with a smile to return someone’s greeting from across the way. Yet he is as prolific and revered a jeweler as any in town and throughout Colombia, and from his chair he has seen his town evolve from dawn to dusk over the course of three quarters of a century.

“I didn’t imagine it this way,” he said, slightly surprised with his newest creation as he finished it. He held up the six-petaled flower with his thick fingers and turned to me, a glimmer in his eye. “But, looking at it now, I like it.”

Jordan Salama is a senior in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese from Pelham, NY. His areas of interest include nonfiction writing and broadcast journalism, with a focus on Latin America. With certificates in Journalism, Creative Writing, and Latin American Studies he has done fieldwork in Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, and Bolivia. His first Junior Paper was a nonfiction travelogue chronicling a journey to retrace the 1920s-era trade route of his great-grandfather, who was a Syrian textile merchant in the Argentine Andes. His senior thesis will be a series of nonfiction stories collected from along the banks of the Magdalena River, Colombia's most important waterway. He can be reached at jsalama@princeton.edu.

Research funded by PLAS. For PLAS undergraduate funding opportunities, visit: https://plas.princeton.edu/funding/undergraduate