The History of Traditional Filigree Jewelry in Yucatan, Mexico

By Carmen Armstrong

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the Yucatan, jewelry for the Maya population consisted of jade, coral, abalone shell and gold obtained in trade from the Aztecs. After the Conquest, precious-metal filigree was imported from Spain and subsequently was produced by church friars for various liturgical uses in church sacristies. Eventually, these friars taught the indigenous people filigree-making techniques. Little by little, filigree techniques were also employed to make jewelry for personal adornment until they were used almost exclusively for that purpose. Jewelry designs were also Spanish in origin.

Techniques were passed down through time via the apprentice system. Families passed the trade from father to son or an apprentice was taught under a patron, who was usually related in some fashion. Filigree jewelry was exclusively produced in gold. Silver was not utilized for filigree. The jewelry given to a young woman during the course of her life was her property exclusively and not subject to the directives of her husband or any other individual. Gold jewelry was viewed as financial security and, in times of need, could be redeemed for money.

The tradition in the Yucatan was to give a young baby girl her first set of earrings at approximately 2 to 3 months of age. A necklace was also usually gifted as well. Upon marriage, a young woman was given an elaborate set of gold jewelry by the groom’s family, usually consisting of a filigree rosary and elaborate filigree earrings. This rite of passage denoted passage into adulthood and the woman’s social status. The more gold received, the higher the social standing.

In the early 1900’s, production of gold filigree jewelry boomed in the Yucatan. The henequen plantations produced unbelievable wealth for the area. At this time, Mexico’s Yucatan was home to the highest concentration of millionaires in the world. Wealthy plantation owners were large consumers of gold filigree jewelry and would often give elaborate filigree jewelry to servants or employees of long standing as a sign of gratitude.

Silver filigree jewelry was produced originally in the Yucatan during the 1940’s and 1950’s for the export market.   The domestic market for filigree jewelry rejected silver as a metal of choice, deeming it solely for the poor. The market for silver filigree jewelry was very strong during this time and many talleres or workshops would employ upwards of 100 people to make filigree. This came to an end in the 1950’s with the introduction of the social security system in Mexico. The additional cost of social security affected profitability for the talleres and many closed at this time.

Social security laws mandated that even an apprentice learning the craft and not necessarily to profits was entitled to social security, which was ultimately underwritten by the contributing employer. It normally takes 4 to 5 years to learn the techniques to produce filigree jewelry. Most large talleres dissolved and filigree jewelry production moved into very small talleres typically consisting of 10 people or less. These small workshops survived by doing jewelry repairs and producing jewelry on a limited basis with a middleman providing the gold to be worked, commissioning the jewelry and then selling the finished jewelry in the market or to stores.

This system was affected in 1968 with a dramatic rise in the price of gold. The demand for gold filigree jewelry collapsed due to price pressures. Filigree artisans attempted to combat this by forming a cooperative to purchase the gold collectively and decrease the cost of raw material. Ultimately, this did not work due to mismanagement of finances by the collective; eventually, the collective collapsed. The problem was at least partially resolved when the Mexican government stepped in and provided a method whereby filigree artisans could purchase gold to be worked in a “casa for artisans.” Gold could also be purchased through a bank, but a registration number was required and, as a result, taxes became due. This affected the cost of the finished jewelry. With present social security obligations and little revenue production, today’s patrons are reluctant to take on an apprentice for 4 or 5 years. The patron system was the way that the craft was traditionally passed on prior to social security.

Currently, filigree-making skills are taught in Merida, Mexico in a school for the traditional arts, one of the few avenues presently available to learn the craft. The Ramos family has been very involved in preserving the tradition of filigree. Leading the preservation movement is Carlos Ramos, an instructor of maestro level who has been recognized numerous times through awards at national exhibitions. Filigree jewelry currently produced in the Yucatan is still made entirely by hand and is very labor intensive.

Today, gold filigree jewelry is worn primarily for grand festivals or fiestas in the Yucatan with traditional dress. Elaborate rosaries, which originally had purely religious associations, are now stock parts of regional fiesta attire. The gold filigree jewelry worn during fiestas is, in many instances, inherited. The indigenous Maya population in the Yucatan continues to support traditional filigree artists, but the support for this art continues to erode as Mexico becomes more urban. Gold still is the preferred metal for filigree jewelry by the domestic Yucatan market, though when gold and labor prices rise, it becomes more difficult to support the artisans. For daily wear, most modern urban Yucatecan women choose machine-produced gold jewelry of modern design.

The challenge in today’s market involves preserving traditional filigree techniques and developing new markets in which appreciation exists for handcrafted jewelry. The Ramos family is intimately involved in this endeavor and has produced many new designs for this market.

Carlos Ramos is pictured here along with his daughter and the author, Los Amigos member Carmen Armstrong during his presentation to Amigos in Merida in March 2007.

Reference Material:

“La Plateria En Yucatan” by Silvia Teran

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