Mapuche Traditional Adornment by Leonor Arno
Mapuche ethnic adornment is the great unknown for lovers of ethnic jewelry. Being a silversmith work without major technical challenges, it has great aesthetic strength for the simplicity of its shapes and the great originality of its designs.
The Mapuche people live on the Andes Mountains, straddling Argentina and Chile, between the Aconcagua River and Chiloé Island. Its inhabitants are very wedded to their land and their customs, and have a rich cosmology that focuses its principles in their attachment to ancestral territories, then embodied in everyday objects such as ceramics, textiles and jewellery. It is also the people who resisted three and half centuries of conquest, first by Spanish invader, and then by the Chilean colonization.
Traditional Mapuche jewelry is made of silver, worked in basic structures of tubes, small beads, plates and chains. The combination of these elements and their engraved decoration make these jewels so peculiar. Mapuche women have great consideration for these silver ornaments, which are worn at special and important occasions, festivals and trips to the city. Both shapes and patterns etched on the silver reproduce their esoteric connection with the land and the gods, and therefore these jewels dignify and protect Mapuche women.
Men also use silver dressings in horses decoration, habit that, in fact, comes from the Spanish, who in turn received it from the Arabs.
The origin of this silver jewellery is not prehispanic, as we might think at first, but it started with the arrival of the Spaniards. The silversmiths or retrafes reproduced in silver (brought by the Spaniards themselves) the jewels they already manufactured in copper and gold (no silver mines in this area). The techniques used previously by the retrafes were very basic, but with the Spaniards they learnt the complexity of the technique, which allowed them to bring Mapuche jewelry to its highest splendor on the second half of the nineteenth century , before it started to decay.
The small colored glass beads were another element of exchange with the Spaniards, from which women made beautiful necklaces that were inherited from mother to daughter and which are very important when rituals and prayers are performed.
Since the early twentieth century the Mapuche tradicional work on silver has been abandoned, and its disappearance is due to different causes. The most overriding was the loss of their lands in the early twentieth century, when the population was then placed in “reductions”, where they impoverished and emigrated. Moreover, the silver, coming to the region by Chilean silver coins that were melted, also disappeared, since currencies ceased to be made of this material.
Unfortunately the Mapuche silversmiths (called retrafes) are practically nonexistent now, and the Mapuche original jewellery that still exists and was not cast, survive in museums and private collections. There are now about 4,000 Mapuche pieces of jewellery cataloged.