In the late 1990s, while vacationing with a friend in the mountain towns of Ecuador, I became fascinated with the amazing earrings I saw swinging from the ears of the indigenous and mestizo women in the many vibrant open markets. They were singular designs of great beauty. These women have a highly developed sense of style steeped in tradition, and the earrings were worn with obvious pride.
In the late 16th century the Spanish brought with them European techniques of working the precious metals – particularly filigree and repoussé – which drove their exploration and conquest into South America.
In Ecuador they encountered an already established and highly developed metallurgical tradition practiced by artisans in all parts of the country using the gold and silver found in the active mines of the Andean foothills.
In the lovely colonial town of Cuenca I met Jorge Moscoso, a wonderfully sophisticated master jeweler, who was able to help find other jewelers still skilled in these techniques. Jorge helped me realize my dream of bringing this unusual jewelry to the United States and beyond.
The filigree technique still practiced in Southern Ecuador is considered the pinnacle of this tradition. Filigree is crafted entirely by hand in the same way it was 400 years ago. All the gold in Belle jewelry is mined in Ecuador and is slightly purer than 18 karat.
Many of our designs are faithful reproductions of the traditional styles worn by Ecuadorean women. Others take their inspiration from this vibrant tradition and are adapted for modern use.
Pearls have always been part of Ecuadorean jewelry tradition. With the opening of the cultured pearl trade good, high-quality Asian pearls have become available. I personally select the semi-precious stones and pearls at various gem sources in the U.S. and carry them by hand to Ecuador for use by our jewelers.
The Craft of Filigree
The jeweler’s first step in making a filigree piece is to make fine gold wire. Using a steel draw plate with a selection of calibrated holes, the soft gold is pulled repeatedly through the drawplate’s smaller and smaller holes until the wire becomes workable and achieves the desired gauge.
An almost thread-like diameter is required for filigree. A frame of slightly thicker wire is shaped and soldered to form an armature, which holds the finer wire in twisted into delicate patterns within. The threadlike wire is wound around sharp plier points and released spring-like into the armature and then flash soldered in place.
Repoussé is the process by which thin metal sheet is beaten and shaped around a mold with rounded steel tools. Many of the earrings in the Belle collection are fabricated piece by piece from a metal sheet. One flower may have as many as eight separate petals formed individually. All techniques require painstaking and delicate work usually done with magnification.
None of this could take place without the friendship and help of Jorge Moscoso. Decorated by the province of Azuay as a master goldsmith, Jorge learned his craft at a young age. He brings to our work a deep knowledge of his culture in addition to the high level of his skill.
Jorge has been acknowledged as a master jeweler in the fine book published by the Banco de Mexico, Great Masters of Ibero-America. He works with other jewelers in his community guiding them as they produce our pieces.
Ecuador is a rapidly developing country, and the pressures of modernization endanger all the fine traditional hand crafts produced there. We feel a responsibility to support the high quality of work represented by Belle designs for the benefit of these skilled artisans, and to honor the hands that create this beautiful jewelry.
We hope you will enjoy wearing our designs and passing them on as heirlooms for generations to come.
Susan H. Bell
Santa Fe, New Mexico