ARGENTINA’S SILVER LINING

Sonja D'cruze

Sonja D'cruze

Daniel Escasany: 40 years of devotion to silver on show

In a new exhibition, one of Argentina’s most esteemed platero’s (silversmith’s) Daniel Escasany, brings together a collection of his life’s work for the first time. Free and open to the public, it’s the chance to meet the artisan face to face and get in touch with this deep-seated silvery side of Argentine culture.

Silver: A brief history

So deep is this land’s lineage with silver, that it is engraved in its very name. ‘Argentina’ evolves from the Latin word for silver, ‘Argentum,’ and it was rumoured legends of a ‘silver mountain,’ which enticed fortune hunting European conquistadors to it’s shores in the 16th century. The mountain myth remains just that – but abundant supplies of the precious metal were found along the fittingly named Rio De La Plata (Silver River). Guaraní tribes had already mastered the art of transforming the raw material into beautiful adornments, but with the new Spanish and Portuguese arrivals came a fresh amalgamation of styles and cultures.

By 1776, Buenos Aires had become the capital of a new Spanish viceroyalty and with Colonization came further waves of European silversmiths. A new national identity began to evolve alongside the exisiting gaucho culture – and of course – it was was cast in silver. Everyday items such as mates, made from calabaza (squash) that hold the precious yerba mate (tea), were elaborated in the metal and accompanied by silver bombillas (straws). The most modest quintessential of countrylife such as knives, belt buckles and horse tack became embellished symbols of pride.

It’s a tradition that’s been kept alive through successive generations and is currently experiencing somewhat of a revival. The picturesque rural town of San Antonio de Areco, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, is a renowned centre for silverware production and has a museum dedicated to the craft.

The artist’s taller

My eyes dart around the workshop as the amiable Daniel invites me to sit on the one sturdy seat he has faith in. I’m fascinated by the dense array of life packed into its walls. Various giant tweezers lie next to the bunsen burner, a multitude of hammers and other tools – every size and description – are hung up on display, but what really catches my eye is the double tape-deck next to the fake mounted horsehead. For a minute, I think I’ve walked into San Telmo antiques market instead of his studio. We exchange a few jokes about how he’s worked hard to achieve this lived-in look, over twenty years, and how the extra polvo (dust) adds a genuine pulpería (traditional grocery store/bar) flavour.

Daniel at his workbench - where the magic happens. Ph Sonja D'cruze
Daniel at his workbench – where the magic happens. Ph Sonja D’cruze

Daniel is clearly in his element here and it’s where you’ll find him casting, forging and polishing his wares between tending to clients and smoking his beloved cigarettes. He swears he never gets to finish a whole one and just after lighting-up, the phone goes again with someone else at the door. This time it’s about some work for la Asociación Argentina de Polo.

“Somedays I’ll be here three days and nobody passes by and then suddenly everyone comes at once,” he smiles. ‘Clients’ seems somewhat formal for the way Daniel handles things. After 40 years in the business, the regulars become friends and each interaction is filled with updates about the family, health and a few laughs. He’s still working with Alberto Souto, who gave him his first ever commission (outside of friends and family) at the age of 19. How long a piece takes depends on the requirements,  but a knife can take around three days, though Daniel always has a few items on the go to maintain the pace and his interest.

The Escasany legacy

Surprisingly, it wasn’t exactly a given that Daniel would become a silversmith. His father was an estate agent and Daniel had hopes of becoming a vet – but a silver rich line of heritage can be traced back to his great-grandfather, Ramón Escasany. On his arrival from Spain in 1892, Ramón and his brother Manuel set about building up an empire of jewellery and watchmaker’s workshops, which saw the family name become one of the most illustrious in the business during the 1930s and ‘40s.

Learning the trade

Daniel’s first forray into artesania criolla was working alongside Luis Alberto Flecher, making leather-goods. He recalls that it was hard to find the silver fastenings for the keyrings they made and there was something about the quality of the shine and durability of the metal which drew him in. That, and the fact he knew there was the potential to earn more, ‘I thought with silver, I’d be able to go on holidays and date women,’ he smiles. He sought out training alongside the masterful silversmith Juan Jose Draghi in San Antonio de Areco. Despite the threat of mass production in the mid-twentieth century, Draghi always favoured authentic techniques and as a consequence has been pivotal in popularizing silversmithery’s unique identity in Argentina. Today his family still run a workshop and museum in the rural town.

Traditional artisanal tools and methods. Ph Sonja D'cruze
Traditional artisanal tools and methods. Ph Sonja D’cruze

As an 18 year old apprentice, Daniel learnt his craft by watching and practicing. Recalling his initial endeavors with silver, he says it was feelings of trepidation that overwhelmed him as opposed to a romanticized image of suddenly realizing his destiny. ‘It’s expensive y’know? And I was just so aware that if I messed it up then that was it.’ Four decades on, it’s a sensation rarely visited. Instead, Escasany tells me the thrill now comes from custom designing pieces.

Bespoke design

Currently on the workbench is a half-finished candelabre which he’s designing in respect of the colonial cannon. It’s a challenge – and one he relishes. He tells me he’s working from a computer image print out, his friends mock his drawing skills. “They say no one would ever buy anything I made if they only had my drawings to go on!” Instead he makes smaller maquettes of the finished product and if he doesn’t get the right result he can always melt it down again. Apart from ordering the raw material in chapa (sheets) from mines, much of the silver comes from melted down, unstamped pieces these days.

A candelabra work in progress. Ph Sonja D'cruze
A candelabra work in progress. Ph Sonja D’cruze

“I’ll often get grandparents looking for a knife to celebrate their grandchild’s 18th birthday, or land owners and their employees wanting to invest in a one-off piece,” Daniel relates. He carefully builds up a profile of the person the piece is for according to their age and background and then moulds, solders, carves and polishes their requests into reality. This invaluable connection to the gaucho tradition is as important to him now as it always has been and these treasured heirlooms get passed down the generations. For gaucho’s with more humble incomes he’ll work out a payment plan, “it’s important that people who really use these objects have access to them,” he says. He rarely works with tourists.

Daniel likens his pieces to children, “I can’t answer the million dollar question of which is my favourite.’’ Quoting his original maestro – Draghi – Daniel continues, ‘You don’t finish a piece, you leave it. There comes a point when you have to put it down – but there’s always something else you could do.”

“First I have to like the piece, then I’ll show it to the client,” he adds. “My enjoyment comes from seeing their faces when they set their eyes on it for the first time, holding that piece that they’ll have for years to come and shine with pride.” Restoration makes up the other part of his work.

Symbols and tradition

Typical buckle designs (left to right Flor de Cardo de Argentina, Estrella Federal, Flor de Cardo de EscociaScotland.) Ph Sonja D'cruze
Typical buckle designs (left to right Flor de Cardo de Argentina, Estrella Federal, Flor de Cardo of Scotland.) Ph Sonja D’cruze

On display are a range of silver burnished mates, bombillas, knives, cups and crucifixes as well as smaller items such as keyrings and cufflinks. A signature piece for any discerning gaucho attire are the hebillas and rastras, both types of buckles which recreate countryside scenes and symbols from horses to the flor de cardo, or even the motif or initials of the landowner who orders the commission. And just like the highstreet, fashions come and go in silver too. The traditional flor de cardo was replaced by the Scottish thistle (coincidently the logo of the British encyclopedia) some years ago when a traditional Argentine men’s brand called James Smart adopted it as their logo.

The future for plateros

Reflecting on his life’s work, Daniel thought it was time to bring together a collection of his pieces for a show and operate a kind of open studio where people can pop in and ask him questions while he creates. He’s all about the diffusion of knowledge and although Escasany plays down any scholarly ability, he dictated a guide book to his wife about the art of silversmithery. “I’ve read all the books out there on the subject and they all concern the European style. Each silversmith has their unique way of working, but this book acts as a ‘how-to’ guide, it’s neutral so basically anyone could effectively learn the trade.”

If it’s something that appeals, Daniel also runs workshops from his studio. Students range from 18 to 60 years old and he jokes that with all the buena onda it’s like a group therapy session, “only I need to pay for a psychologist after myself!” A handful of students have gone on to make it their vocation.

For now, the family trade of silversmithery stops here for Daniel Escasany. Some family members work in jewelers but his son has gone into computers. Perhaps the noble art will be taken up in another couple of generations and history will repeat itself, only time will tell.

Exhibition details

When: 30 September – 14 October. Monday – Friday 1100-2000

Where: Arandu

You can visit Daniel Escasany’s workshop by appointment only, +54 (11) 4422 8118

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Sonja D'cruze

Sonja D'cruze

Sonja is a freelance journalist who studied at the London College of Communication. After working as a radio producer for the BBC, she got a ticket to carnival in Rio de Janeiro and then made her way on many a long bus to Buenos Aires. She stayed, lured by a love of porteño life and its Castellano speaking people. The city still surprises and she's not done with it yet, always on the hunt to uncover something creative, beautiful, tasty or just plain weird, behind one of BA's many unassuming doors. She writes, dabbles in tango, loves yoga and longs to be good at playing the trumpet.


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