In the Land of Silver – Argentina’s Modern-day Silversmiths

Baptised as the ‘land of silver,’ Argentina has long been associated with the shiny noble metal, right back to its very beginnings as a country. Legend has it the early Spanish and Portuguese conquerors of the 16th century acquired a variety of beautiful silver objects from the Guaraní tribes down the Rio de La Plata (a.k.a. Silver River). This river was believed to lead to the ‘Sierra del Plata,’ a mystical mountain range of silver. Although there’s no proof to suggest this ever existed, the whole region was, and still is, rich in silver mines. The European artisans who later came to settle in Argentina made use of this versatile and durable material, crafting it into beautiful silverware that became a practical and decorative part of the gaucho culture.

Argentina’s artisans of today remain loyal to their trusty hammer and chisels and have kept the 400-year-old manual techniques employed by their ancestors alive. In an age of mass production, they still take their time to cast, forge, engrave and polish unique pieces of solid silver by hand transforming them into true collector’s items. If you’re looking for a special silver memento from Argentina, pay a visit to one of these modern-day silversmiths.

Daniel M. Escasany

Entering the Recoleta workshop of Buenos Aires-based Daniel Escasany, it’s clear you’re in the presence of a true artisan, who takes pride in his craft. An assortment of metal tools hang from the walls and lie strewn across his wooden work table alongside gleaming half-finished knives, decorative cups and other silver works in progress.

His passion came in part from his heritage; the Escasany family first came to Argentina from Spain in 1892 and opened a watchmakers and jewellery workshop that became one of the most reputable houses in the country during the 1930s and 40s. However, his interest in silverware wasn’t fully sparked until he started working with Luis Alberto Flores. Although Flores was an artisan specialising in rawhide leather goods, it was the hand-engraved silver accessories that adorned Flores’ leather pieces that really caught Escasany’s eye.

Daniel Escasany carefully crafting Argento’s iconic silver A; photo by Mauro Roll.

He went on to train with the famous Jose Juan Draghi, a master of silverwork in San Antonio de Areco who has played a major part in keeping the original art of silversmithing alive in Argentina and today his family run a workshop, studio and museum in the town. Through his teachings, Escasany discovered the “the infinite possibilities of silver”.

Although he has silver pieces on display in his workshop that extend from the traditional campo paraphernalia of knives, mates, bombillas and belt buckles (a gaucho’s most prized possessions) to religious silverware and modern day accessories such as a pair of cufflinks or a pen drive holder, Escasany works mainly with private clients on a made-to-order basis. The time it takes for him to meet each individual request varies depending on the urgency. “A knife may take three days,” he says, but he usually has a few different projects on the go at any one time and will pick up and put down a piece depending on his mood and the requirements.

Two examples of Daniel Escasany’s silverwork.

“When you’re learning the trade of silversmithing, it’s not just a question of learning the art of silver, you also have to learn the blacksmith’s trade so you can make and use the right tools, design, woodwork, leatherwork, not to mention the techniques for restoring antique silver. And that’s what I love about it. There are no limits. With every new piece comes a new challenge that you have to overcome.” And, believe it or not, 50% of that time is spent on the finish of the piece, which, according to Escasany, is the hardest part. “Polishing was one of the hardest things to learn.”

In addition, the talented silversmith dedicates himself to restoring and assessing old pieces of silverware and gives classes at the Universidad del Museo Social. You can also learn the art of silversmithing yourself at one of his drop-in workshops or four month courses, held in his atelier.

You can visit Daniel Escasany’s workshop by appointment only, +54-(11)-4812-1959

Alquimia (Judith Gálvez and Horacio Sarli)

Artisans Judith Gálvez (from Chile) and her husband Horacio Sarli (from Argentina) started their love affair with silver (and one another) in Chile. At the time, Sarli was traveling and Gálvez was working in the hotel and tourism industry. It was there that their friend Pablo “introduced us to the journey of silver and its magic,” tells Gálvez. Inspired, they continued their travels together around Latin America taking courses along the way and picking up the tricks of the trade from different silversmiths.

Judith Gálvez at work in her studio; photo by Sophie Lloyd.

Together, they returned to Argentina and Horacio’s home town of San Antonio de Areco, in the north of the Buenos Aires province. There, they educated themselves further in the techniques, design, proportion and aesthetics of silversmithing and started their own collection of jewellery. Extending the boundaries, the modern-day artisans employ the same techniques while playing around with the union of different materials to create unique, timeless pieces that combine solid silver with anything from precious stones to woven cotton or wood, describing their craft as a “game of alchemy.”

The Alquimia workshop in San Antonio de Areco; photo by Sophie Lloyd.

They started by selling their pieces in the town’s weekend artisan market and opened their own workshop and boutique in 2006. “We learnt a lot from our travels and applied our knowledge to each piece. Our inspiration can come from a memory, nature, a precious gem that we’ve found, or even a concept.” says Gálvez.

The couple work together and each item in their collection is carefully thought out and created by hand. Tells Gálvez, “Each piece has its own life story. Although San Antonio de Areco is very traditional, there is a place for ‘nuevos aires’. Our designs are very urban and contemporary but the techniques remain the same.”

Alquimia, Arellano 76, San Antonio de Areco

Marcelo Toledo

Another Buenos Aires-based artisan responsible for transforming silversmithing into a modern-day craft is Marcelo Toledo. He bridges the gap between traditional silversmithing and contemporary design, classifying himself not just as a silversmith but also as a designer and artist.

“I still make traditional silver pieces but, in the last few years, I’ve started to move towards a style that’s much more contemporary, out of my own necessity and the demand of my clients,” explains Toledo (a clientele that has included President Obama and Prince Charles as well as fashion house Ralph Lauren). “Today my classic baroque and colonial pieces have an avant garde edge.” However that’s not to say he follows the trends. He has found his own signature style, “I make my own trends. I continue to use the same traditional techniques but incorporating a modern design or motif.”

Tools of the silversmith’s trade; photo courtesy of Marcelo Toledo.

The multifaceted Toledo was tinkering around with metal and making jewellery from childhood and officially started learning the craft aged 17. Today, he keeps himself busy working on numerous projects, from his regular silverware and jewellery collections showcased in his San Telmo workshop to his famous Evita jewellery line inspired by Eva Peron’s original jewels and clothing that’s made its way onto Broadway and will appear in Argentina’s own version of the musical early next year as well as private commissions.

He regularly exhibits his work in exhibitions around the world and is working on a series of books, one of which (his fourth) will form part of an exhibition next year. The book will be an objet d’art and collector’s item in itself with each individual copy carrying its own distinctive silver design crafted by Toledo himself (while the content remains the same).

Marcelo Toledo at work in his studio; photo courtesy of Marcelo Toledo.

Unlike some of his contemporaries who prefer to either focus on more traditional silverware or jewellery, Toledo makes everything. He says, “The difference between doing bigger pieces and jewellery is in the size of the silver but the techniques are the same. I prefer doing bigger pieces. With jewellery, you need a lot of patience.” And all of Toledo’s pieces carry the Sterling Silver 925 stamp and his signature. “Most of my pieces are decorative, sophisticated pieces but the silver pieces for the countryside are usually made from 900 silver because it’s harder so better for silver pieces made for practical use.”

He also warns to shop carefully for silver as a tourist in the markets and not to confuse alpaca (or nickel silver) with real silver. “Alpaca is alpaca and silver is silver. One is worth only USD$30 per kilo while the other is around USD$1,000 per kilo. One is a metal alloy, the other is a precious metal. If polished well, alpaca looks like sterling silver so it’s hard to tell the difference but alpaca will blacken over time.”

Marcelo Toledo, Humberto Primo 462, San Telmo

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Sophie Lloyd
UK-born Sophie Lloyd first moved to Buenos Aires at the beginning of 2010 out of a desire to learn Spanish and live the Latino lifestyle, having spent the previous five years working as a fashion editor, writer and stylist in Shanghai, China. She quickly adapted to the late nights and copious amounts of Malbec. She works as a freelance writer and copywriter and currently contributes to the Buenos Aires edition of Global Blue's Shop magazine as well as running her own personal shopping and private shopping tour business Shop Hop BA delivering a stress-free, customised shopping experience to visitors to the city.

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