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Spanish woman: superstitions, lustre and metal

10 min read

 La Alberca


There is a particularly area in Spain, La Alberca, that drowns the attention of many because if of its traditional popular culture, its strong rituals, its customs and its jewellery. This jewellery was made with many different symbolic components which talked about the different beliefs that the last century woman had, exhibiting also an exquisite work of filigree, a traditional jewellery technique.


La Alberca is located in the North West of the Spanish peninsula and not far from the Portuguese border. There are, among others, two persons who studied the big heritage that this little town owns. The first is the Spanish photographer José Ortiz Echagüe (Guadalajara 1886 - Madrid 1980) and the second is the American Ruth Matilda Anderson (1893-1983).


For many years, José Ortiz Echagüe, travelled around Spain with a camera in hand, collecting visions of a country that was due to change. The result is a huge amount of visual work, which shows a very personal view of Spain in the first half of the XX century.


The relevance of his work for this research relies on the different series of images he took from this area in particular for the published work “España, tipos y trajes”. Through his photographs one can understand the different rituals, celebrations, and the elements that where part of the daily life in La Alberca, together with the local garments and jewellery. In his pictures women were intensively covered with adornment. Their clothes where composed by many different layers of cloth and the jewellery was an accumulation of inherit value that would reflect their “accumulative” economic capacity - women would wear all the jewellery they owned. At the beginning of the XX century, this dress, “el traje de Vistas” was mainly used for the wedding day or other special rituals, for example “la fiesta del pan”. 


Rituals and Iconography


Life in La Alberca was full of rituals all the year round. “El rito del Orégano” was a ritual where women, during the night of the festivity of San Lorenzo, would go to pick up oregano and bring it home before the sunrise to protect their house from being burned; “el montón de cantos”, involved pilgrims walking to the Eremite throwing stones on a certain spot, constructing little by little a mountain of stone (a Christian ritual but with a prehistoric background of stone rituals); “pata-heno” a ritual connected directly with carnival and bullfighting; and a final example of a ritual in which young boys on horses would pull out the heads of cocks hanging from ropes - there were many Spanish rituals connected to the death of animals, the most famous one is probably “Los Toros” (bullfighting), which is still being practised today. Some of these rituals from La Alberca are still in practice and some of them are lost[1].


Understanding these rituals constructs an understanding of the use of symbolism of the jewellery that they used.


The second person who studied the subject, Ruth Matilda Anderson, did an exhaustive field work on the typology of jewellery from La Alberca. She travelled around Spain and South America and published different manuscripts with her notes and images with the Hispanic Society of America. Because of her precise photographs and comments on them, it is easy to identify the different elements that composed the necklaces and identify the iconography and meaning that they carried.


The iconography used in them was religious but also popular. Necklaces were full of meaningful components and amulets, made out of metal, stones and other materials. The most notorious ones are the elements called “reliquias” (relics) and the representation of different Virgins and Saints.


The relics would usually carry little messages like texts, objects, or even bones of death saints - or animals - inside them.


Other symbols can also been found. Articulated fishes, in representation of fertility; hearts; chestnuts, to prevent the “usagre”, a skin sickness, and used against rheumatism and haemorrhoids; “garra de tejon” with curative properties, also similar to the “open hand” with references in the Arabic culture, as a symbol of protective qualities; stones with dented edges, which prevent against thunders and storms; the “higa”, an amulet used intensively in the Spanish culture. “Hacer la higa” is the intention of creating evil to another human being; if this person would carry the Higa amulet, it would remove the spell; horns, teeth, and bones also reject the evil; “cuenta de leche” stones carved in the form of rosary beads have the property of filling up the breast of the women who will carry them.


The jewellery from La Alberca is made with different techniques but the most used is the filigree technique.


The art of twisting wire: “Oribes” and Filigree


The origin of filigree goes back to the Egyptians who used already a kind of wiring systems for their adornments, and it reached perfection with the work of Greeks and Etruscans. Filigree work was developed strongly during the middle ages by the Moors in Spain. The nineteenth century saw the revival of filigree in Europe – the use of traditional jewellery as a fashionable trend – which helped to keep alive this traditional technique. Each country had its own characteristic forms and identity[2], but jewellery was moved from one country to another due to presents and tourist purchases.


Filigree work, and jewels for La Alberca were mostly made by “Oribes”, name that is given to the silversmiths in the area, but some extra pieces were also made by artisans from other areas and then added to these large necklaces. These other craftsmen were living and working in the surrounding areas, like Ciudad Rodrigo and Béjar -even closer to the Portuguese territory, therefore accentuating even more the influence of Portuguese Filigree work in Spanish jewellery- Other pieces that were coming from Galicia (North-West) and Cordoba (South-East) due to the common exchange of products by the “arrieros” in the XVIII century, who would travel around the peninsula selling products from one area to the other. [3]


Techniques and forms where extremely similar in Portugal and Spain. For example, “hearts” are mainly found in Portugal but also in some areas in northern Spain.


Now the only few remaining Spanish filigree workshops are in the area close to the border with Portugal and the artists are usually descendents of Portuguese artisans.


The father of Jose Luis, a filigree artisan in Ciudad Rodrigo was Portuguese. He learned at home, at a very early age how to make silver spirals to fill in the forms that his father would prepare for him.[4] Similar is the case of the filigree artisan Lorenzo, whose grandfather was also Portuguese and who instead of becoming a priest, decided to learn from his father the filigree technique. Many of his friends became soldiers, other priests, and others both.[5]


Jose Luis and Lorenzo live 200 Km from each other. The forms that they use are similar but with differences, because they both add their own interpretations of traditional forms. For example Jose Luis uses inside “armazon” made of spirals and Lorenzo has the tendency to divide spaces with only arcs, but they both know what type of earrings belong to which area or town. They own a huge traditional heritage that will soon be lost. They didn’t have children that would want to follow their paths and learn the technique, and there are not many filigree workshops left in Spain.


New expressions in filigree


At present, there is a revival of Filigree taking place in Povoa de Lanhoso, Portugal. The International design Competition “Reviving the Filigree” together with a Congress with the same name, are taking place in June 07. This competition intends to give continuity to the goal of the International project “Lightness: reviving the Filigree”. It aims to promote the use of filigree technique in the contemporary jewellery practice. An examples of contemporary Portuguese work is Liliana Guerreiro


There is one Spanish fashion label that recovers this Moor’s tradition in its jewellery: Vitorio & Lucchino. Their creations are based on a spirit which comes from three different cultures and religions put together. They live, create and get influenced by Andalucia, south of Spain, where Christians, Judaists, and Moors lived in harmony until history pulled them apart. New lines, freshness in the forms, together with tradition and crafts, is what defines the collection spring summer 07.[6]


They design jewellery which is inspired by filigree technique but is sadly mass produced. It is loosing its delicacy and refined work, signature of filigree craftsmanship. In any case, it is interesting how they have achieved to make jewellery accessories for the contemporary woman, that still carry a message of heritage and skilled work.


Lustre and pride


Another symbolic element in Spanish jewellery is the Pearl. Historically, pearls have been one of the most valuable materials, and have been intensively used in the peninsula and other Mediterranean countries. Now, due to its extensive production, its value has decreased considerably but its symbolism seems to be still alive.


In some traditional filigree pieces - still used as the adornment for special occasions - the use of pearl work can still be found. The filigree is used as a based structure where pearls are sewed on top, as a setting.


Pearls are also full of symbolism and have been shared in use by other Mediterranean territories.


The Spanish used of pearls comes from before the sixteenth century. Pearls used to come from Asia but when Europeans arrived in America, it became one of the principal pillars of the Indies trade, specially from the warm waters in Central America.


Back then, pearls were very valuable items. Women from the aristocracy used to wear them not only as jewellery but also sewed onto their garments and set on exquisite little objects, like snuff boxes[7]. This display of value and craftsmanship would inform others about their status.


“…the gown opens in the front that fastens from collar to waist. Small gems surrounded by pearls decorate the entire bodice giving it a stunning appearance” [8]


During last century the extraction and cultivation of pearls changed drastically. First Japan and then China learnt the way to farm and produce them in large amounts. The time of breeding has shortened considerably since the introducing of natural nuclei, which will help the size and form of the future pearl. Pearls are not anymore a luxurious item.


But there will always be something extravagant about them, something decadent and burlesque. Since the end of last century pearls have always been connected to the old fashioned and the kitsch. They act as an artifice as they are not any more what they used to be. They have become a representation of themselves. And this quality attributes them a feeling of decadence.


Many fashion houses have been using pearls in their last collection, Chanel being an obvious example. They emphasise this chic-decadence even more by using large imitation pearls in many of their accessories.


The legacy of the jewellery from La Alberca, the filigree technique, and the symbolism of pearls, represent the value of jewellery which can communicate at different levels with the wearer and the spectator, and carry personal messages.


Cultural references and personal iconography


Jewellery, as well as other objects, can represent emotions and beliefs of those who use them, or own them; as well as their personal perception of life. One example of this emotional communication with the spectator through his objects is the artist and potter Grayson Perry.


He uses meaningful and personal iconography on the surface of his vases and submerges the viewer into his own world of his fantasy and fetish.


“Fragmented and disjointed, directionless and in-the-round, how is one to know where the narrative begins and ends?...who is taking responsibility for our putting together this compilation of fragments…?”[9]


There is a clear cross-boundary between his personal life and his work, emphasised by his use of performative arts creating a representation of himself as Claire, his alter-ego.


His work generates questions about the position that these pots have in a modern context, between the so called fine arts and crafts. He is positioning himself as an outsider artist but probably being very aware of the power that this position might also have in the art world.


The work of artist Tracy Emin shares a similar approach. Most of her work is based on a willingness to expose her private life to the viewer. These personal details have become her trademarks. These objects, words or moments become like symbols which have a meaning and it is up to us to compose the total narrative from the fragmented pieces.


The work of the Spanish fashion designer David Delfín, shows references to Spanish cultural heritage. The 2002 collection was a mixed of personal anxieties and surrealist references from the work of Spanish film maker Luis Buñuel.


Individualism in contemporary jewellery


As discussed in the jewellery from La Alberca, jewels can be part of a society by representing its values and can communicate a fragment of the Spanish culture.


Considering that symbols where representing values from that moment in time, the next question would be what kind of symbols would be relevant to use in the contemporary context?


Our society is much more fragmented than before, and values and ideas belong to individuals rather than being shared by the general public. Already since the 1990’s, studio jewellery is characterised by a concern for individuality. The work might be made in a wide range of materials, forms and might communicate different ideas, but the individual is a common concern.


In same way that Greyson Perry, Tracy Emin and David Delfin create a world of their one, full of icons, there would be a place for jewellery which carries cultural references, symbolic meanings and individual’s points of view. Therefore, making the self and the personal beliefs, anxieties and fantasies part of the final work; as fragments of life that the spectator will use to create their own narrative.


Filigree technique has the quality of being a very visual technique.  Because it is based on wires, these can function as the line of a pencil, which create forms by twisting and soldering.


This quality gives it endless possibilities for new meanings, when used in an innovative way.


Also the use of this recognisable traditional Spanish technique would add a layer of evocative atmosphere that evokes the past, the value of craftsmanship and the heritage of the arts. An example of a differing argument is the following:


“Filigree as an expression of the plastic arts, too subdued by the traditional iconography, inspires a spirit of belonging that no longer gets the supporters of before. It is about a spirit that no longer belongs to this time and is at risk of losing the connection to this place. To promote its recovery on behalf of the culture is to create the conditions for its use”[10] 



[1] Puerto, J.L. Revista de Folklore. Caja España. Fundación Joaquín Díaz. <http://www.funjdiaz.net/folklore/07ficha.cfm?id=674>. Accessed 15 April 2007.

[2] Jane Perry (2007) V&A visit. Life event research. Appendix B, p.17

[3] Herradon Figueroa, M.A (2005). La Alberca Joyas. Madrid. Ministerio de Cultura. p.67

[4] Nieves, J.L (2006). Life event research. Appendix B, p.11

[5] Bernal, L (2006). Life event research. Appendix B, p.13

[6] Victorio &Lucchino (2007). Berta Legido. Press release. Marketing department Victorio&Lucchino.

[7] Gilbert Collection. Life event research. Appendix B, p.16

[8] De Segna, A.(2007) Spanish Mourning Gown.

<http://www.dragonslaire.org/Articles/Spanish_Mourning_Gown.htm> Accessed 12 April 2007.

[9] Jardine, L.(2007) About  Grayson Perry and his Art. <http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/grayson_perry_about.htm> Accessed 10 May 2006

[10] Providência, F (2004). Reviving the Filigree.Escola Superior de Artes e Design Matosinhos.


This is an excerpt from Arabel Lebrusan's MA paper "Individualism and the heritage of Craftsmanship. Questioning Spanish sensibility and sustainable processes in the contemporary jewellery practice". Central Saint Martins. 2007.

If you have enjoyed reading this text, you can download the full paper HERE

arabel lebrusan
arabel lebrusan

Arabel Lebrusan is an artist, designer and pioneer of the ethical jewellery movement, with almost two decades of industry experience behind her. She is a fount of knowledge when it comes to responsible sourcing, sustainable manufacture, and the preservation of traditional craft. Her engaging blog posts range from personal accounts of once-in-a-lifetime sourcing trips to helpful tips for buying and wearing jewellery and opinion pieces on pressing industry matters.