Sunday, February 19, 2012

It's a Small, Small World

One of my great pleasures in spending time in Peru and volunteering with Manos Amigas is making connections with numerous artisans who make the items we sell at Global Gifts.  My wife Alison and I recently had the pleasure of visiting Fermin Vilcapoma who makes the beautiful teardrop turquoise earring and necklace set pictured below (and sold at Global Gifts).

In fact, Fermin was in the process of creating this necklace and earring set when we visited (see process description later in post).

(Necklace $130, Earrings $54)

After chatting with Fermin for about 30 minutes he asked where we were from.  We answered the United States and he asked which state we came from.  Alison said Indiana and an excited expression came across his face.   “I visited Bloomington, Indiana last year!” he said.  He explained that he was part of a group hosted by the IU business school that travelled from Peru to IU to talk about how they have grown their export business.  “I have a store in Bloomington!” I responded just as excitedly.  “I visited a fair trade store when I was in Bloomington” exclaimed Fermin.  “It had some of my jewelry for sale there.  I was excited to see my jewelry for sale so I had my picture taken with it” he continued.  As he tried to recall the name of the store I said, “Was it Global Gifts?”  “Yes!” said Fermin.

What were the chances that we could make a connection like this?  Later I recalled that Dave, the manager of the Bloomington Global Gifts, had told me about a group of Peruvians that had visited the store early in 2011.  In fact, “One of the Peruvians had found some of his jewelry in our store,” Dave had told me.  “He even had his picture taken with it” Dave had said.  At the time I didn’t think too much of this.  Normally when an artisan visits one of our stores it is because we have arranged it.  Dave nor I had any prior knowledge about this visit so I took it as an interesting and somewhat curious event but didn’t give it more thought after that.  But now here I was with that very artisan.  It felt like finding the missing link of a riddle I had forgotten to solve. 

(Sam pictured with Fermin outside of his workshop/home)

Jewelry Making Process

(Above: When we visited Fermin’s workshop, he was in the process of filling an order for one of his best-selling pairs of earrings.  They are beautiful Peruvian turquoise stone earrings set in silver in the shape of teardrops.  Fermin is holding a chunk of the as-yet-unprocessed turquoise that comes out of the copper mines of Peru. Also pictured is a piece of silver where the design of the earrings has been etched in.)

(Above: 1) Each earring is cut by hand from the silver and 2) the silver earring hooks are cut and formed from what looks like long pieces of silver thread.)

(Above: 1) A neat pile of silver thread, cut for the earring hooks. 2) Finishing touches are made to the earrings when the sides are smoothed and the hooks are attached under the heat of a blowtorch.  3) Last the stone is set within the silver.  We did not have the opportunity to see the stone being cut and polished but this process takes place in the workshop as well.)

More About Fermin

Fermín Vilcapoma Bohórquez is a native of Canta, a province three hours from Lima. He moved to Lima with his mother when he was pretty young; he has lived here since 1st grade. His wife, Magdalena, is from Lima. They have two sons, Franco (14 years old) and Aaron (11 years old). His workshop and home are located in San Juan de Lurigancho. Fermín produces beautiful jewelry: earrings, pendants, brooches, rings.

He learned jewelry making from his father. Fermín wanted to study systems engineering but was not able to go to university, so he started making a living based on his training. He was the oldest brother and therefore felt somewhat obligated to be an example and join the family business. He has 3 siblings, two brothers and a sister. While his sister is an English teacher, the brothers are also jewelry makers. Although he was not able to attend university, he’s been able to study administration and accounting to benefit his business,.

The number of people he employs in his workshop has fluctuated over time. For example, in 1995 he had 5 employees. In 2000, he employed 15. In 2012, he has 5 (in addition to himself and his wife, Magdalena). Of the current seven employees, 2 are women.

He purchases his materials once an order has been placed, since silver is expensive (for example, a kilo of silver can cost between USD $1,200-$1,800). He is also careful to use all the silver, and saves and melts down the extra parts (that have been cut out from a design, for example) for reuse.

His designs come from various places. Sometimes he designs the products. Frequently his clients do too. They will send him a drawing of something they’d like, and Fermín will trade drawings back and forth with them until they arrive at a design the client likes and that Fermín can produce.

He’s been in his current workshop since 2000. Prior to moving here, he has worked in workshops first in his mother’s home and later in his father-in-law’s house. His living and working conditions have improved considerably from when he started: he was living and working in a tin shack. Now Fermín has a four-story cement building that continues to serve as both his home and workshop, although the spaces are well-divided.

His dream for the future is to move his living space out of his workshop building and use that space as a jewelry school. He and his wife would like to be able to teach poor people the craft of jewelry making so they can improve their living situations and lives.

Fermín hopes his sons will be involved in the family business as adults but strongly believes they need to discover what makes them happy and do it.

(Above: Fermin pictured with his sons Franco, top, and Aaron, bottom)

Fermín is the secretary of a fair trade organization called APTEC (, the only one in Peru that is formed exclusively of producers. Different product lines are represented, like weavers, clothing, potters, and jewelry.  He’s been part of this group for 3 years and while he is proud of them, he feels like there has been a lot of work without much success so far. Still, he has hope that investing time and resources into this group which will help each of the producers be more successful in the coming years.

His business has been hit hard by the recession. In the last 2 years, he has had to lay off 8 workers. He is hopeful that business will rebound as the worldwide economy improves.

A goal of his is to expand his market and gain more clients. In 2008, he and Magdalena began to travel to the US once a year for a craft fair in Manhattan. They went three times, made many product samples per potential clients’ requests, yet gained only one client. As Magdalena mentioned, they ended 2010 with no money after traveling to the US several times! So while they would love more international clients, they are currently unsure how to accomplish this without losing more money.

When Fermín was asked what he likes most about his work, he offered several examples: How his business has grown in the last 25 years. How he and his employees have been able to support themselves and be successful through fair trade. Seeing his products in stores (like Global Gifts).

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