“Welcome to real Colombia" said a colleague to me as we were getting off a small motor boat which brought us from the port in Magangue to Santa Cruz de Mompox. The journey to the island took about 1,5 hours down Magdalena River rimmed with thick tropical vegetation. 250 km away from vibrant Cartagena-de-Indias, Mompox looked unattractive and plain at first sight. Over the next two days I discovered what a hidden gem it actually was.
The isolation of Mompox served to the preservation of colonial architecture, and the seeming abandonment in fact represented pristine Spanish colonial town. Most buildings are still used for their original purposes like centuries ago. There are probably more churches than a town of 30,000 residents might need and each exhibits fine colonial art. Three main streets lined with massive wooden doors garnished by animal-shaped door knockers and window grills decorated with wrought ironwork. This historical hallmark along with stagnant sultriness creates an impression that time stood still here. In this quietude even the local cemetery did not feel weird to sightsee.
There, next to the cemetery, I first saw a stand with a sign “Filigrana” on it offering affordable silver jewelry from local artisans.
Filigree is a delicate kind of jewelry metalwork, usually of gold or silver, made with twisted threads and tiny beads in combination arranged in artistic motifs. The technique was originally brought to Mompox by Spanish colonists, and many families have practiced it for generations. There are dozens of artisan workshops in Mompox producing and selling exquisite hand-made earrings, bracelets, and other knick-knacks for prices varying as low as 15,000 pesos (~$5) and up to $200 depending on the complexity and weight of the item.
Traditionally, filigree jewelry making has been a male-dominated industry with very few women involved. Magalys Romero de Herrera was a pioneer when she entered the business 36 years ago. Today she runs a successful company “Santa Cruz” which produces custom filigree jewelry and sells it around Colombia and exports it to France and the United States.
She never intended to become an artisan though. Like many passionate people she found her purpose by chance. Almost forty years ago she was a stay-at-home mom with three children. Her husband was a goldsmith. She started learning how to make jewelry out of interest and gradually fell in love with filigree. “Filigree jewelry is a real art not mere craftwork. It is a special feeling to have an idea in your head and then transform raw material into a beautiful item. It feels victorious,” said Magalys as she was showing me a pair of leaf-shaped earrings which upon closer inspection looked like an elegant spider web.
She designs all of her jewelry herself using traditional motifs from nature such as animals, birds, trees, flowers as well geometric shapes and indigenous ornaments. Although in the past gold used to be the primary material for filigree jewelry, it is now manufactured only by special order due to high market prices. The majority of Mompox artisans work with silver, and Magalys likes experimenting with designs, colors, and additional materials such as leather.
Scrutinizing an unfinished bracelet made of thin darkened silver threads interlaced in quaint pattern, I realized how much patience and diligence this labor required. “There used to be one school that taught filigree jewelry making. Young people who graduated from it had knowledge but lacked practice. Those who want to learn have to go to workshops and practice doing each step of the entire production process.”
While we were talking I noticed a woman with an infant and a few toddlers playing around. The workshop was a house where Magalys’s big family lived and did business at the same time.
“Nowadays, lots of women work in filigree production, for example, two of my daughters. Back then, when I started, the situation was very different. It was thought that women’s role was cooking, housekeeping, childrearing, but thanks to liberation movement there are more female artisans in Mompox.”