Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Amazing Copper of Santa Clara del Cobre

Hundreds of people make their living as copper artisans in the town of Santa Clara del Cobre in Michoacán, Mexico. Every step of the process of transforming the raw copper material to a finished piece is done entirely by hand. Not only is each piece made by hand, but the process is extremely laborious, in many cases requiring a full month or more of daily work. The process consists of repeated heating and hammering the raw copper first into a mass, and then into the desired shape, finally ending with the process of a hammered finish. The work requires “talento y esfuerza”--not only skill, but great strength and endurance, as it may take hundreds of thousands of hammer blows in order to complete one large piece.

The indigenous people of Michoacán were working with copper long before the arrival of the Spanish. The revered archbishop Vasco de Quiroga, attempting to foment commerce in the region, urged the coppersmiths of Santa Clara to make cazos, or large cooking pots. These pots are still used for cooking today all over Mexico. Below is a picture of a huge one that is being used for making a special atole at the festival of Corpus Christi in the village of Tzintzuntzan.

The copper mines played out about fifty years ago, and today most of the 10,000 tons of copper that comes into Santa Clara each week arrives in the form of recycled copper wire and cable from electric and telephone companies. The price has been going up and up, and it is getting harder to find the raw material. This past summer, my husband Doug and I brought down some wire and leftover pieces of copper pipe, donated by a friend of ours. Roberto, our favorite copper artisan, was thrilled.
In 1946 a group of local artisans in Santa Clara del Cobre organized the first Copper Fair, which continues to be held every year in August. The fair, which features numerous cash prizes to winning artisans, has helped to revitalize the industry by encouraging the production of decorative pieces such as jugs, vases and centerpieces. The copper artisans and their work are celebrated as the center of this community's economic and cultural life, and the feria features music, really fun parades (with the copper princesses as pictured below) and the awarding of prizes by Michoacán's governor. Winning pieces are on display in the town's copper museum and are available for purchase. If you like copper art, this is a good time to visit.
Fine quality decorative copper pieces as well as copper cooking pots (cazos) are personally selected by us and can be purchased in the United States from Mexico By Hand. We also lead small tours to visit artisan workshops, so people can see the copper process, and then buy directly from the artisan.

photo below: Tour visits workshop of copper artisan, Ignacio Punzo, who is featured in the Banamex collection,"Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art".

But if you aren’t able to go to Mexico, Doug produced a 10 minute video for Michoacán’s
Casa de las Artesanias on the copper artisans of Santa Clara del Cobre, which is available on DVD and can be purchased for cost on our website:

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