The Master Jeweler: The Oldest in Town

by | Dec 13, 2019

The main church in Mompox

A canoe brings schoolchildren into town on the Magdalena River

Eighty-nine-year-old Simón 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,” Villanueva told me as he put on his thick, black-rimmed glasses. The oldest jeweler in Mompox, Colombia, has been perfecting his craft for 77 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. At 89, he looks twenty years younger, still 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 cowboy 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.

The style is called filigree, and this isolated town, 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 Oriental influences. Mompox was a goldsmith’s town, due to its strategic location on the Magdalena River as a major Spanish colonial outpost during the days of the gold and silver trade. Merchandise coming from the mines of Colombia’s interior was prepared for the river journey to the Caribbean coast, where it would be placed on ships bound for Europe and the rest of the world. It was also taxed at a rate of twenty percent (the famous “Royal Fifth”) by the Spanish; with the sheer abundance of precious metals passing through town—after a few years of its founding, a royal mint was established in Mompox—it became known as the “City of Gold,” and the filigree practice was fueled.

Villanueva’s grandmother came from Margarita, a nearby village known for cultivating oranges and other citrus fruits, and she moved to Mompox with a man from Spain before eventually marrying Villanueva’s grandfather. Born in 1928, Villanueva got his start with filigree at the age of 12, learning first from a few uncles while selling soup from his family’s doorstep. Then he began an apprenticeship with Luis Guillermo Tres Palacios, whom Villanueva calls “the best jeweler Mompox has ever seen.”

He sold his filigree jewelry to the passengers on the grandiose steamboats that stopped in Mompox on their journeys up and down the Magdalena, having long replaced the oar-powered riverboats of the colonial period. His customers travelled in luxury, he said, wearing white suits and drinking wine while traveling between Bogotá and the coast on the three-story boats.

In 1946, at the age of 18, he boarded a steamboat himself, bound for the coastal city of Barranquilla and taking his jeweler’s workbench and supplies along with him. For several years he worked in Barranquilla, before moving back inland to the city of Sincelejo and eventually, five years after he initially set out, back to Mompox. He married his wife that year, in 1951, and moved into the house where he has lived ever since.

“You don’t think about time when you’re doing this,” he 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 from six in the morning to six in the evening, seven days a week, until he can’t anymore for lack of light. It’s a loud, social block—street vendors pass by at all hours hawking fresh cheese and meat, and motorcycles rumble by on their way to the main town square.

An elderly woman who seems much older than Villanueva 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 Villanueva’s way. Villanueva remembered when a group of gypsies sold horses from tents on a nearby corner in the 1950s, and when Syrian and Lebanese immigrants 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.

Faride Jalilie, owner of one of the last Middle Eastern textile shops in Mompox

When I met Villanueva for the first time, he flashed me that smile. There’s a certain kind of romanticism that’s expected when meeting a person like Villanueva—the oldest, most well-regarded jeweler in a forgotten town who spends his days honing an antiquated art found nowhere else on the continent. When I found him on his porch for the first time, however, he appeared a very different man than I expected. Corpulent and shirtless, he was sitting in his chair wearing only a pair of faded white shorts with a permanently broken zipper. Part of his stomach protruded from the opening of his fly, and the rest of his body sagged over the sides of the chair in layers (the next day, he’d upgraded to a pressed, blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt, untucked and with short sleeves and a large breast pocket). His hair was white and unkempt, and he had a gray, bushy mustache that reached to the corners of his mouth. He spoke quickly, in a raspy, slurred Spanish that was difficult for me to understand because of his lack of teeth.

In other ways, he fit the mold. When he spoke about his work, his passion shone through, his extraordinarily kind face breaking into a wide, infectious smile. His workbench was an 80-year-old antique from 1937 that he said he would take to the grave. “To work in heaven,” he said, laughing. He is as prolific and revered a jeweler as any in Mompox 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.

Most, if not all, of the changes that have befallen Mompox have been related in one way or another to the Magdalen a, which skirts around the town’s northern edge. Until recently, the river was the only way to reach the town at all. Spanish explorers used it to access the interior of the country from the coast, resulting in the founding of Mompox in 1537 and its enrichment from the aforementioned gold and silver trade in the years that followed. Commerce followed the riches, filling the river with canoes, rafts, and—beginning in the 19th century—steamboats. The steamboats were the crown jewel of the Magdalena River for well over one hundred years, with their towering smokestacks and three-story decks carrying passengers dressed in white, enjoying restaurants, bakeries, and orchestras that played until sunrise. Mompox was an important stop along the route, which could easily take two weeks in the earlier years of the boats. It was a place where passengers could rest for the night and the vessels could resupply and refuel. Some who arrived via the Magdalena never left, seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the town’s economic potential, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Mompox saw an influx of German and Middle Eastern immigrants—representative of larger immigration trends in the region. The result was a vibrant atmosphere of commerce and transport, both on the river and the road that ran alongside it.

Enter Simón Villanueva, who as a young man would meet the docking steamboats in the 1940s and 1950s—heading upriver on Mondays, downriver on Wednesdays, he remembered—to sell jewelry to the disembarking passengers. As it happened, they turned out to be among the river’s last; a combination of environmental changes and other problems caused the Magdalena to decline in popularity as a transportation route and the Mompox arm of the river to cease to be navigable altogether. The last steamboats came through in the early years of the 1970s, during the seeds of the armed conflict that would paralyze Colombia and isolate Mompox for nearly fifty years. The lack of customers hasn’t stopped Villanueva from making more jewelry each day to add to his display case, piece by piece, like drops in a bucket. He sees himself more as an engineer than just a jeweler. “This will never end,” he told me when I asked him if his was a disappearing art form, “because inventing new designs will never get old.”

A street in Mompox.

His home, like many of the others in this area of town, is brightly colored and has several street-facing windows, the yellow wood-paneled shutters open to let in any possible semblance of a breeze to alleviate the sticky heat. His six-year-old granddaughter spent each day running around her grandfather’s workstation on the small porch. In one of the windows, on the first day, I saw another filigree workstation, set in a dark bedroom that seemed to be caked with black ashen dust. A single fluorescent light bulb hung by a thin metal pipe from the ceiling, and the piercing white light illuminated another grandson—a young man named Luis Eduardo Villanueva—and his workbench, atop which several dozen freshly completed three-leaf earrings were strewn.

“It’s a tradition,” Luis Eduardo told me about his grandfather’s work. “I’ve been learning since I was little. You do the work with your heart, not just for the money. My father does it, my uncles, my cousins.”

“It fills me with joy to know that I taught them and that they’re continuing the practice,” Villanueva said of his son and grandson. “They’re also teaching others. That’s the chain of jewelry, each one teaching the next—as they say, first you’re a son, and then you’re a father.”

After filling the outline of his most recent design—the flower with the curved bulbs—Villanueva sprinkled a silver powder over the entire piece, which was no more than an inch in diameter, to give it a stronger luster. He placed it on a flat stone and took out a small, rudimentary welder, which he used to fuse the filling with the outline, creating a flower that looked almost as if it was made of a silver mesh. The blue flame was strong and pointed, with occasional orange bursts erupting along the edges. For a few seconds after the flame was applied, the flower had a red, ember-like glow. Villanueva placed it, still soft from the heat, in a smooth mortar, and used a stone pestle to gently pound it. This caused the petals to bend upwards, giving the flower a touch of life. When he was finished, he picked up the tiny object with his large, thick fingers and inspected it. “I didn’t imagine it this way,” he said, slightly surprised by his new creation. “But, looking at it now, I like it.”

Winter 2019Volume XVIII, Number 2

Jordan Salama is a writer and journalist. A senior at Princeton University, his work has been featured on National Public Radio as well as in several magazines and newspapers. His senior thesis is a nonfiction book of travels along the Magdalena River in Colombia.

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