Silver and jewels tucked away in the Valparaíso hills

Silversmith Victor Hugo has been producing handmade jewelry for twelve years. His antique showroom and workshop are hidden away like so many things in Chile’s beloved port city, down a bohemian passageway, drawing in customers from Chile and around the world.

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On a hot day, climbing up the salty harbor streets of Valparaíso, the rainbow of stands selling traditional trinkets, shawls and beads can become as oppressive as the midday sun. But hidden deep inside the city’s winding hills is a vein of pure silverwork charm. High on Cerro Concepción, in one of the prettiest parts of the labyrinthine port, is the shop of Victor Hugo, silversmith and maker of original Chilean jewelry.

An antique workshop

His showroom – Silver Workshop – is easy to miss, only announced by a small placard propped up on the pavement part-way down Templeman Passage. Step in to the alleyway on the left, ring a the bell at the rustic doorway, and the artisan will emerge to invite you into the cool antique villa that serves as his workplace.

The showroom is spectacular. Simple traditional furniture and dark wood cases laid out with fine Chilean silver; the precious metal gleaming with its unique tone in the uneven light of the shop’s slatted windows.  A central glass case holds chunky necklaces, rings and star-like earrings studded with amber. Spaced around the room is more jewelry along with miniature statues, engraved cutlery and loose stones for people who might want to set the gems themselves.

Other pieces feature the famous veined blue of Chilean lapis lazuli, a rare semi-precious stone that is found in relatively few countries in the world. I’m unable to resist a tiny one with a hole threaded through the center ready for use, on sale for a steal at US$1.70 ($800 pesos).

Victor Hugo: “Inspired by the Valparaíso hills”

“Valparaíso is an inexhaustible source of inspiration,” says Hugo, owner of the shop and creator of all the work on display around us, with the exception of a selection of some characteristic Mapuche jewelry placed prominently behind the counter. This he sources on annual trips south to meet with indigenous artisans based in Temuco, Chile’s capital of Mapuche culture.

Born in the northern Chilean city of Antofagasta, Hugo began working with precious metals and stones while living in Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s. Returning to his home country in 1994, he lived for short periods in Santiago and in Valparaíso’s sister city, Viña del Mar, before settling in Valparaíso in 1998.

The historic port city has become a muse for the silversmith. “I am inspired by the lines of the hills,” he says. “The geography and the diversity of cultures. People from all countries live and travel here, and I talk to them a lot, about Chile and about life abroad.”

Jewelry craft in Chile and abroad

Artisanal silverwork brings Chile, with its own rich sources of silver in the mines to the north of the country, into contact with cultures around the world. Hugo has traveled worldwide, from Sweden to Brazil, to present his work at exhibitions. He used to run jewelry-making classes with foreign students in Valparaíso, passing on his skills to young people from the US, France and Switzerland among others.

Chileans are also becoming more interested in fine artisanal jewelry, Hugo believes, with increasing numbers of native customers visiting his shop. “There is more interest in art and culture,” he says. “Like foreign tourists, Chileans come to browse in the shop – and they are more likely to return to purchase a piece.”

Valparaíso is becoming an excellent source of quality jewelry, with another silver workshop, that of fellow silversmith Rocco Napoli, just round the corner from Hugo’s own store on Cerro Concepción. Courses in Chile teaching gold and silver craft are also on the rise, with schools around the country catering to Chileans and foreigners alike. The Universidad de Chile backs a gold and silver work course run by Santiago’s Museum of Popular American Art, and the Universidad Católica de Temuco in the south of Chile also offers a course in Contemporary Gold and Silver Smithing.

Asked what keeps the craft alive and keeps customers coming back time and again to his small workshop in the beautiful city that is his home, Hugo’s answer is simple: “ Belief. Belief in what you do, and love of the work.

“I work with the elements of the earth, with its various and beautiful colors. Every jewel is a poem, an act of love, and with it there comes a story. My work is a universal language.”

For more information visit www.silverworkshop.cl

By Clare Bevis

This post is also available in Spanish