Peruvian Jewelry Art and Metalwork

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By Enid KaplanMore from this author

Peru, Land of the Inca, the Sun Worshippers, Land of Gold (the "Sweat of the Sun"), Land of Silver (the "Tears of the Moon"), a land where precious metals were in abundance, used not only for ritual but for everyday pots, pans, eating utensils and fishhooks.

Since childhood, I had been mystified by Peruvian golden figures and creatures with their shimmering, dangling discs that I had seen at the Museum of Natural History in New York. I had no idea how they were made; I just knew I was fascinated by something whose vision stirred me emotionally and aesthetically. I suppose I sensed something very human and direct about what they were saying. I didn't intellectualize at age 10; but when I look back, it must have been the expression of strong emotions about life, death and the afterlife that moved me.

Peruvian Jewelry Art and Metalwork - San Jeronimo, Peru
San Jeronimo

Only a shadow of these ancient cultures remains in the 20th century; yet, I hoped that a visit to Peru would expand my understanding of their universe and whether contemporary practitioners would shed light on their legacy.

There is always something profound about seeing objects in the land where they were created. The colors and forms of their landscapes, the sounds of their language and music, even the odors of their cuisine all contribute to an awareness books and slides can never convey. They come alive as an integral and meaningful part of daily life, appreciated and worshipped because of their personal significance to the individual, and not because they are "great art." In experiencing them through their own people, I hoped to be inspired by the very imagery that had seemed so remote.

As traveling always provides me with a distance and perspective on my own life as well as that of the new world I am exploring, I anticipated the new insights that this Peruvian journey would bring. What had become of their extraordinary talent and tradition? What role had metalwork played in their past and what role would it play now? How had their artistic expression been affected by the Spanish conquerers? As my own work has grown more figurative, I imagined their images would carry a special message. With these questions swimming in my mind, I and my husband, Jordan Deitcher, a theater director and writer, embarked on a two-month journey to the Land of the Sun.

San Jeronimo Co-op. Photos: Enid Kaplan

The art and metalwork we did find carries more meaning when set against a picture of what had existed in Inca times. Cusco in the 14th century was the center of the largest empire in South America, comparable to that of Rome, with a population of over 10 million. The city was dense with glorious temples and stupendous imperial palaces, all with interiors of gold and exteriors of renowned Inca masonry. Noblemen were carried around in litters; their bodies decorated with large breastplates, nose ornaments, ear spools and woven garments with hundreds of dangling discs to catch the light. Women were also lavishly adorned with golden necklaces, earrings, hair ornaments and shimmering garments. All the gold was owned by the Incan court, which employed master goldsmiths imported from the northern coastal Chimu culture to create ceremonial and religious objects.

The Incas believed in an afterlife, where their souls would eat, drink and relax forever. The nobles were often buried in large ceramic vases covered with weavings, their bodies adorned with gold jewelry, thin golden gloves and masks, their mouths and hands filled with silver and gold discs. The chiefs were buried in the company of women, friends and servants, usually placed alive beside them in their tombs, or "huacas," with liquor and food for the trip. The pre-Columbian artifacts that have come down to us are primarily ceramics, weavings and metalwork buried in these huacas, which escaped the destructive hands of the Spanish.


Perhaps the most extraordinary vision in ancient Cusco, "Korincancha," the Temple of the Sun and most revered shrine in the empire, was constructed of Incan masonry and covered with ¼"-thick plates of solid gold, each weighing about five pounds. The interior walls were of gold, and the high altar was topped with a huge repousséd sun-image, a face with emanating rays and flames that was positioned to draw the "real" sun's rays inside the temple.

Outside the temple was the Inti Pampa, or Field of the Sun, to me, one of the most incredible conceptions in metal that has ever been created. A field of life-sized animals, birds, figures and vegetation, exquisitely wrought in gold, silver and stones, golden llamas, birds in trees, butterflies and crawling lizards. They even had thatched roofs of real straw interspersed with straws of pure gold to catch the sun's reflection. What minds conjured up such a magical fantasyland? And what a vision this must have been to the Spanish!

But, of course, we will never really know . . . I opened my eyes to a modern Cusco, entirely transformed from the collision of these two cultures that had such different perceptions of the value of gold: the Inca, who saw its value as symbolic and spiritual, and the Spanish, who saw its material value. As the latter has triumphed, the jewelry altars, walls of gold and exquisite, magical sculptures of the Inti Pampa were all transformed to thousands of tons of ingots.


Being there, you really feel the rape of this culture, and I found myself furious that the greedy Spanish hadn't had the decency to leave the world at least a few of these objects. Although Cusco is a beautiful city, European-style with tiled roofs and winding streets, I saw, and felt, the destructive presence of the Conquistadores more strongly there than anywhere else in Peru. I don't mean to imply that I expected things to be as they were 400 years ago, but I had hoped for something akin to Jeruselum or Rome, both ancient capitals that have managed to maintain a more harmonious integration of past and present. Instead, I found an aggressive disharmony of cultural sensibilities. On a physical level, the temples and palaces are completely buried by garish Catholic churches, and, on a psychological level, the identity of the people has been deeply subverted. Embittered and angry, they still see most foreigners as Conquistadores, to be treated with a mixture of servility, admiration and resentment.


One gets the feeling that contemporary Peruvians appreciate their heritage—the artworks and archeological sites—only for their value as tourist attractions and not from an innate sense of pride. In fact, many Peruvians with whom I spoke, particularly of college age, are ashamed of their Incan past and, like the newly arrived European Jews in America, attempt to obliterate the dialects and traditions which they believe will hinder their entrance into the Spanish world of wealth and status.

As tourism is the basis of the Cuscan economy, there is an abundance of jewelry, weavings and metalwork for sale on the streets and in the shops. Although this work has a certain charm and is even well made, I was disappointed by its uniformity and lack of "soul." The voice it expresses is a group voice, rather than one of individuals—a synthesis of styles of slight variations on pre-Columbian themes, all a pale shadow of their powerful predecessors.


Most of the jewelry is mass-produced, cast or stamped, sterling reproductions of images from various pre-Columbian cultures. The most popular image is a "Tumi" or Incan ceremonial knife. Humorously extricated from its original "serious" context, it appears as tiny sterling or 14k earrings, rows of tiny "Tumis" as necklaces or bracelets, brass bottle openers, large repousséd wall plaques, and even as designs on towels and bedspreads. Also popular are the miniaturized earth drawings of the Nazca culture, a pre-Incan civilization of about 1100 A.D., who carved large birds, monkeys, spiders and even astronaut images onto their flat, dry plains. On a larger scale, similar images appear on raised copper beakers, ashtrays, plates and bowls. These souvenirs are available throughout the major Peruvian cities, with most of the work produced in large factories in Lima.

I did, however, find jewelry with Incan images carried to exquisite extremes of delicacy and detail, beautifully hand-fabricated in colored golds and oxidized silver in some of the finer shops in Lima, Cusco and Arequipa. One of these in Cusco, on Calle Sapphi, was run by Hugo Ormachea. This small store and adjacent workshop carries jewelry and some holloware of Incan designs, with an occasional European, floral influence. The quality of the work was fine, all hand-fabricated by Ormachea and the five male jewelers he employs. As this was my first personal interaction with a Peruvian goldsmith, I pumped him with questions.

I learned that there are no universities or schools teaching metalwork in Peru, so training is handed down from father to son over generations. Ormachea, proud to be carrying on his family tradition, is already training his six-year-old son. He explained that the hand-fabricated metalwork tradition is dying, as few people his age (mid-20s) have the inclination, facilities, let alone capital, to pursue it. I also learned that all metal is purchased from the Banco Mineral or directly from the mines, in blocks of pure zetal that must be alloyed and milled. Ormachea works only in 22k gold and scoffed at the American use of 14k "garbage" that we pass off as gold. I was surprised to hear how rich in gold and silver Peru's jungles and mountains still are, despite the Spanish drain. Metals are considerably less expensive there, probably because of the low wages of the miners, who were on strike to raise their pay from $1 per day to a hefty $1.25 for eight to 10 hours of labor.

The Peruvian metalwork today is essentially a commercial enterprise, geared towards what Peruvians think the tourists want, rather than an expression of how they see themselves. Perhaps this artform has yet to find its voice and place in modern society. With most Peruvians operating on survival levels and with no ruling class to commission works in gold, who can afford the equipment and materials? These were the sorts of issues I contemplated as we continued our journey. We had word of some mountain villages of silversmiths in the north in Huancayo, so, we set out in that direction. Huancayo, a town featuring an extensive popular Sunday crafts market, is the center of a network of neighboring villages, each specializing in a particular craft form: weaving in Hualhuas, gourd carving in Cochas Chicas y Grandes and silversmithing in San Jerónimo. Although the weaving and metalwork is different in form from that in the larger cities, it retains a uniformity of style and the communal rather than individual expression of works created primarily for tourists.


The jewelry is filigree in fine silver and gold with floral, paisley and geometric designs of Spanish influence. Entire families are involved with the production and sale of the jewelry, and here, too, training is passed down through the generations, although women also do metalwork. The inhabitants of the villages are primarily Indians, often speaking only Quechua, the Incan language, and earning on the average $2 to $4 per day. This places the purchase of metals, tools, equipment and electricity (lacking usually) in an entirely different perspective.

A solution to the equipment problem was the formation of the Cooperativa Artesania, an alliance of 15 male and female silversmiths, ranging in age from 17 to 40, who jointly share in the ownership and organization of the workshop, equipment, tools, materials, labor and profits generated from the sale of their jewelry through outlets in the cities, the Huancayo market, and their showroom in San Jerónimo. Individuals in the village may rent time at the cooperative to use the shop. Although the townspeople actually wear some of their jewelry and seem to enjoy its fabrication, it is still primarily for tourist sale, and not an integral part of their lives.

I did, however, find one exception at the studio of Juan Porras Bendida, where we saw a large, silver, repousséd altar-piece and crown for the statue of the Virgin. These had just been completed by Juan and a group of local silversmiths to be included in a parade at the upcoming Fiesta de San Jerónimo, the patron saint of the town. Although these people are desperately poor, they pool all their resources to purchase the silver and give their time to the creation of these objects for the religious honor it bestows on them.

This contemporary altarpiece and Virgin's crown, both decorated with floral designs, were the only examples where artworks in metal became an integral and significant part of daily life. In Cochas Chicas, a special gourd will be carved to honor a marriage, depicting the landscapes and legends familiar to the couple. As the gourd carving is a more recently developed art form, it is free to draw on contemporary experiences for its symbols, whereas the metalwork generally reverts to the traditional images of the Spanish era.

Enid Kaplan, Psychological Portrait, 1986

From here, we headed south to Lake Titicaca where we lived for a week on the island of Taquile with a family in an adobe hut. After a one-hour climb, we entered a foreign world, frozen in the time of the Inca. This is a breathtaking island of Inca terracing, Indians in native dress who whisper in Quechua, one main plaza, no banks and one lightbulb. All the men, women and children spin, knit and weave a variety of belts, hats and vests, which they treasure and wear as well as sell to tourists (although only a rugged tourist would venture here). While a little disappointed to learn that it is not in their tradition to make or wear jewelry, I was delighted to see men and women chatting in the plaza, knitting and spinning, creating and wearing garments with relevant images-symbols of their crops, legends, landmarks and lives. It is relatively easy for this traditional artform to prevail, as the materials, tools and equipment are all naturally available on the island. Although there are individual touches of subtle variations, the colors and images of the weaving and knitting are fairly consistant with their customs of food, clothing, shelters, economic and social status, and choices of how to spend their days. There was a marvelous kindness, serenity and solidity of these people, and I felt a dignity and pride that was a stark contrast to the people we had encountered in the cities.

Some of the most powerful magic we felt in Peru came from being in its spectacular landscapes. At Machu Picchu, hovering amidst craggy peaks and mist, or hiking in the snow-capped Andes, we were soothed and inspired. A few mountains and glaciers every now and then remind me of my place in the world. The people in these areas, although very poor, appear to have an inner peace and strength from their harmony with nature and their close family and community bonds.

Finally we returned to Lima. There, next to the fabulous Museo de Oro, was Vasco Jewelers, creators of the finest contemporary metalwork I had seen in Peru. Founded 36 years ago by "foreigners," two Italians from Genoa, Guglielmo Scotto and Luis Varese, Vasco is dedicated to "paying homage to the magnificence of Peruvian pre-Columbian gold" through replicas or adaptations of traditional images for jewelry, containers and small sculptures.

The inventive variations and superior craftsmanship place the works in a unique category. Scotto's son, Gianpuro, the head manager, gave me a tour of their extensive workshop, which employs 42 Peruvian male jewelers and one female designer. Most jewelers come with years of experience behind them, although occasionally some, perhaps children of the jewelers, will be trained at the workshop from an early age. While certain designs are repeated, they are all hand-fabricated with slight variations in 18k gold, sterling, crysacolla (called "Peruvian turquoise") and chaquia, which are fossilized shells from ancient burial sites of the coastal Chimu and Chancay cultures.

The Spanish Conquistadores completely obliterated the pride and identity of what had been the richest and most powerful center in South America. My sense, especially in Cusco, is that the psychological scars and resentments prevail in modern Peru and have contributed to the declining interest in metalwork and their other highly developed arts of clay and fiber. The popular president Alan Garcia has rekindled Peruvian national pride. The new Peru is relatively young in its development and, like anyone recovering from a devastating trauma, must relearn to think, walk and express its unique personality in its art. Vasco seemed to reflect the highest potential for defining a Peruvian image in metalwork.

Entering the Museo de Oro, I was struck by the vast number of objects. Instead of one extraordinary pair of tweezers, there are 50; instead of one repousséd silver beaker, there is an entire room stacked with them. These works are only a portion of what was uncovered in the tombs of various Incan and pre-Incan cultures, covering a period from 100 B.C. to 1530 A.D. Although many pieces are very intricate, they do not feel labored but playful and spontaneous. The gold is manipulated in a casual manner and is even occasionally painted. The other qualities I admired in the museum's metalwork were the use of movement and reflection, the bold juxtaposition of intricate, dimensional details with solid, flat areas; the unexpected combinations of gold with other materials such as wood, shells and cloth, and the content, power and whimsy of the figurative images.

Enid Kaplan, Goat Man brooch, sterling silver, etched titanium, mobium, mesh, paint, 3 x 2 x ¼", 1986

Numerous hanging shapes, either hovering in low relief above a simple form or quivering within a pierced space, were used to produce sounds and to reflect sunlight onto the wearer. One piece I loved was a tall, greenish-copper, square crown, with four vertical horns, standing about 20″ high, that is completely covered with hanging gold half-domes. Another, a simple woven cloak in bands of black and red, was covered with hundreds of sewn dangling discs. I imagined how incredible these two pieces would be when worn, moving and catching the light.

Also inspiring was the emptiness and detail in the nose ornaments and Tumi cleavers. Here, sleek, graceful forms are topped with detailed sculptural heads and bodies of humans and animals. One I especially liked was an 8″ Tumi from the Chimu culture, whose knife is vertically divided, half-gold and half-silver. Perched on top is a golden repousséd and formed llama sitting on a base of four turquoise stones from which hang silver and gold discs. Excited by what I was seeing, ideas began to click and I drew for hours.

Facial expressions and gestures of the figures were incredibly alive and intense. Small in scale (usually 2 to 6′), and crudely constructed from repousséd gold sheet, they convey both drama and whimsical lightness. Three golden men, whose foreheads quiver with discs, stand with raised hands and gaping mouths in "Oh-No" positions of shock and dismay. Two scowling musicians hold their instruments and glower at each other. A 3″ carved ivory figure crouches in fear and covers his mouth. I loved the fantasy quality of figures that are part animal/part human/part geometry.

One of my favorite pieces was a repousséd gold cocaine-pouch in the form of a puma, whose tongue is a human face and whose body is a network of two-headed snakes. Similar images appear in the Paracas funerary weavings: human butterflies with snake tongues, winged people with cats inside them, feet with dancing faces—all possessing a flowing, dreamlike quality that suggests the fragile distinctions between animal and human bodies. My own figurative work, often psychological portraits, is moving in a similar, less literal direction.

Enid Kaplan, Psychological Portrait, 1986

So what are my personal conclusions after two months of seeing and absorbing? From the welcome perspective of distance, I found myself both appreciating and rejecting much of what I take for granted. On the most basic level, I am grateful that I was born in this country and have the luxury to operate well above the survival levels that engage most of the world's people. I definitely need to be reminded of this periodically. I am grateful I live in a society rich enough and increasingly aware enough to support the kind of art I wish to create. My need to be in the peace of nature and the craziness of my hectic, goal-oriented life became more apparent, and, although I have returned to it, I have still maintained (not all of the time) an awareness and amused perspective about its general insignificance in the greater scope of things.

As an artist and metalsmith my speculations about the role that metalwork plays and has played in Peru raised some interesting questions about our culture and the role metalwork plays in it. How has our country's economic and social history affected the way we perceive ourselves and how is this reflected in our metalwork? What are the visual symbols unique to this culture?

In pre-Columbian Peru, the images in ceramics, weaving and metalwork were an integral part of social and religious framework and were, as such, an expression of vital beliefs. Removed from this context, the same symbols hold little meaning in the present and may even inhibit the development of a new voice in these media.

How has our field been affected by the burden of its past? What do our contemporary images say about our vision of ourselves and how is this interpreted by the rest of the world? How these observations and speculations will be translated into my own artwork is hard to say. My images have already shifted dramatically, and the experience of Peru has strengthened and clarified my sense of self, both in terms of who I am and what I do. I am committed to exploring and comparing contemporary cultures with traditions of highly developed metalwork and plan to pursue this quest, along with the making of art, throughout my life.

  • G. H. S. Bushnell, Ancient Arts of the Americas, New York: Praeger, 1965
  • Victor Von Hagen, The Desert Kingdomes of Peru, Londo: George Woodenfeld & Nicholson Publishers, 1965
  • Ruth Karen, Kingdom of the Sun, New York: Four Winds Press, 1975
  • Douglas Newton, Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson Rockefeller Collection, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978
  • Harold Osborne, South American Mythology, Verona, Italy: Hamlyn Press, 1968
  • Aurelio Miro Quesada, El Oro de Peru, France: Editions Delroisse, 1981
  • Jesus and Lucienne Rome, Life of the Inca in Ancient Peru, Barcelona: Editions Minerva, 1978

"El Condor Pasa" is the title of an 18th-century Peruvian fold melody, translated and popularized by Paul Simon in the 1970 Simon and Garfunkel album "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and heard everywhere in Peru.

Enid Kaplan is a jeweler/sculptor living and working in New York City.

By Enid Kaplan
Metalsmith Magazine – 1986 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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