Take a short drive North of Lima to San de Lurigancho and you might just come across a multi-storey building owned by Fermín Vilcapoma Bohórquez and his wife Madeleine Labán Rivera. They’re silver and semi-precious stone jewellery makers in Peru who have been in the business for nearly 30 years – and they’re the master makers behind some of Allpa Peru’s most stunning pieces.
“We’re a group of workers who make a living out of this,” he says. “We have no other income.”
And that is exactly how Fermín wants it to be. Although he once dreamed of going to university to become an engineer as a young man, his family did not have the money to send him, so he was forced to change his plans. His stepfather eventually taught him the handcrafted jewellery trade and Fermín hasn’t looked back since.
Fair trade success story
Today his workshop, which is housed in the upper floors of his family’s home, can employ 20 people during busy times. They torch, cut and hammer each piece by hand using tabletop machines and hand tools. The orders from Allpa, a Ten Thousand Villages artisan partner since the late 1980s, are a huge part of his success – and one reason he can now send his son to university.
Allpa, an indigenous word meaning “earth,” aims to improve the living standards of handicraft producers, many of whom are internally displaced refugees living in slums on the outskirts of major cities. Allpa provides technical help, product development advice, skills training, tools and equipment. It also provides makers with short and mid-term loans for workshop improvements. Crafts were a good fit for the original investors in Allpa since start-up costs are minimal.
Fermín has kept that caring, sharing spirit alive by encouraging particularly talented jewelers working with him to start their own workshops too.
“You can have better machines, a better workplace, but people are people. I always tell them, ‘You are awesome.’ They are all artists, masters,” he says.
Checking them twice
Meanwhile, at another Allpa workshop run by Luis Romero in the Los Olivos region of Lima, master jewellers are handcrafting earrings, rings and necklaces from materials such as sterling silver and rich royal blue sodalite. Luis trains new employees on the finishing process. As they become more experienced, they move on to silverwork.
Carmen Cutti Toledo has been at the workshop for over four years and is in charge of quality control and ensuring there’s enough stock. She also does some of the administrative work.
Before landing her job at the workshop, she was a jewellery salesperson and found it hard to make ends meet. Working for a fair trade workshop means a better income and more job responsibility.
Although the holidays are now in full swing, Carmen admits her Christmas wish doesn’t end on December 25. Financial stability for all makers would be the perfect gift.