Rough hands, delicate pieces

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Jaguey working on in his workshop

Although situated in a landlocked valley a few hours north of Mexico City, the small Otomi community is El Nith (in the municipality of Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo) is known for work in mother-of-pearl inlay of wood items.

Mario Gerardo Jaguey is one of the best-known of these artisans, and while many families in El Nith have been doing this for at least six generations, Jaguey earned his position through his own hard work.

Hard work is nothing new to both adults and children here, as the basis of much of the economy is still agriculture. Children still begin working as soon as they are able to help with family expenses. At age six he was already working in the fields, planting or harvesting tomatoes, chili peppers, etc.  At age 11, he started going to Mexico City during summer vacations to work as well.

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Field in El Nith

One of the various odd jobs included working for a local landowner and artisan named Nicolas Pedrasta. At first Jaguey worked in the fields, but since this is only seasonal, asked for more work and was permitted to help in the señor’s workshop dedicated to the mother-of-pearl craft.

Like all apprenticeships, Jaguey started with the simple jobs, with his first production work being the cutting of simple leaf outlines from the abalone shell. Jaguey found the work easy and intuitive, and after a long time cutting these repetitive pointed ovals, he was bored and wanted to do more. But convincing the maestro to let him was not easy. One problem is that cutting more complicated shapes can put pressure on the thin, delicate blades, which break easily in inexperienced hands. Jaguey’s frustration almost led him to quit, but he stuck it out. One day, he decided to take a chipped leaf piece and cut the vein pattern into it, then show the maestro that he was capable of doing more. That broke the impasse, and Jaguey was permitted to learn just about all aspects of the craft.

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Cutting a vein pattern into a small leaf
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Applying mother-of-pearl into a box in progress

By high school, Jaguey began working the craft on his own, having learned everything the workshop could teach him. His idea was to start with the making of miniature musical instruments, but it was rough going at first. While he had mastered the inlay techniques, he had not learning woodworking to the same degree. The making of miniatures/instruments requires precision and his first pieces were less-than-optimal. Criticism from both customers and his former maestro prompted Jaguey to put more effort to improving this area.

This did not stop him from production and even experimentation. While still in high school, he decided use the technique to create earrings, basically small, flat pieces of wood with inlay. He had some success selling these to classmates. Such small items, which have grown to include keychains and souvenirs are still part of Jaguey’s production. Another innovation came after he finished high school. He met an artisan who works in nickel silver and together they worked out a way to apply mother-of-pearl inlay onto objects of this metal to create jewelry, belt buckles and more.

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Miniature instruments in the shop in El Nith

After finishing high school, Jaguey began to work full time, but the workshop as it is today dates to 1990, when he married his wife. At that time, the couple had no workshop, not even a work table. But Jaguey wanted to build his business and do it differently from his maestro. In El Nith at that time, the craft was a side occupation and even somewhat degraded as not “real work” for a man as it is not strongly physical. Workshops before that time only made pieces to order, meaning that there was no way to sell to the casual visitor. Jaguey decided to dedicate himself to it full time, working 15-hour days with his wife to build stock and a customer base. In 1991, the family used a building on the highway through town to open a store to take advantage of traffic between Ixmiquipan and Cardonal. Initially, the store did very little business as the road is not a true highway and most traffic was (and is) local. Even those potential customers that did pass the store were already on their way to see the old maestro, who still dominated the trade. However, this has since changed in the store’s favor for various reasons, and it can still be found in the same location, carrying up to 100 types of items on display, from miniatures to large pieces 30 cm, sometimes more.

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Shop on the main road in El Nith

The main change to the business was building the reputation of the Jaguey workshop. Much of this has come through the participation of craft and other fairs. The first was the Ixmiquilpan Fair held annually in August, then other small town fairs in the Mezquital Valley and then to the state capital in Pachuca. At these fairs, small items such as earrings and keychains sold best, but more importantly they made his work known. The first fairs outside of Hidalgo were in Toluca, which Maestro Jaguey remembers fondly although the city’s cold climate made him ill.

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Intertwined with fairs are handcraft competitions. Jaguey’s first was in 1999 in Ixmiquilpan, winning first place. The win brought his work to the attention of Mexico’s FONART, which gave him a grant to go to Spain along with a number of other Mexican artisans to sell their wares. While he did not sell much here, he learned the importance of a number of business practices such as having a telephone number (still not that common at the time) and business cards. The experienced allowed him to be more prepared for a second opportunity in Florida the following year. Since then, Jaguey regularly exhibits and sells his work in various parts of Mexico through FONART and also with the Expo de los Pueblos Indígenas in Mexico City. He and the workshop continue to participate and win in handcraft competitions.

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Fair sales and other sales to end buyers constitutes the bulk of business. There are some exceptions such as sales to certain museums, galleries and government agencies, but Jaguey is very cautious about these. Too many resellers attempt to bargain down prices to levels which are not sustainable for the artisan. With direct sales, Jaguey says, both the artisan and the buyer get better prices.

The business has grown both in size and reputation since the late 1990s. It took its current name, “Arte Joya” in 2000, named after the section of El Nith where workshop is. The business continues to be more sophisticated than the vast majority of handcraft enterprises, with a trademark, Facebook page and business cards. The workshop is open to visitors, from those from local elementary classes to groups of foreigners on tours.  Jaguey believes the tours are important as they demonstrate the craft’s complexity, along with aesthetic and cultural value.

JagueyWorkshop045It is also important as the Ixmiquilpan works to promote itself to tourism in general. The town and surrounding valley is an important Otomi cultural and linguistic enclave. Jaguey, an ethnic Otomi who learned Spanish as a second language, believes that the craft is representative not only of the people of this valley, but of Hidalgo state as a whole. He teaches local children and let them work for him, not only to let them earn some money but also to help preserve the craft in the town.

Most of Jaguey’s time is now spent in running the business, with almost all production done by various family members employed and supervised by him and his wife.  The workshop is attached to the family home, both built and expanded since the couple were married. Items that have a wood base are 100% produced by the workshop. In the case of metal objects, only the inlay work is a product of La Joya.

Originally, all inlay work in El Nith was done on woods such as willow and mesquite, and the inlay material was sheep bone, all local materials. Arte Joya still uses some of these. However, wood today is mostly juniper from the highlands of the state because of costs, and mother-of-pearl dominates the inlay because the market prefers its colors. The workshop makes all of the traditional items, jewelry boxes, picture/mirror frames, miniatures, etc and most of the decorative schemes are traditional as well, flowers, other foliage and doves native to the Mezquital. However, other designs are made, especially in pieces made-to-order, which can include letters for personalization, all manner of animals and pre Hispanic designs.

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