Known in their language as Men of the Earth, the Mapuche are Chile’s largest indigenous population. Originally located in the mountains and plains between the Itata River and the Gulf of Reloncavi, their cultural, political, and social identities have been fortified in response to Spanish conquest and colonization, and subsequent subjugation by the Army of the Republic of Chile. Though many have now lead an urban life, the Mapuche retain a strong relationship to nature.
Mapuche cosmology emanates from their ancestral land, and their spirituality is embodied in objects of everyday life including ceramics, textiles, and jewelry. Symbolic content included references to stones, rivers, mountains, flora, fauna, the earth, the stars, as well as to geologic and meteorological phenomena. The jewelry, traditionally made of silver, was forged by the retrafes or silversmiths, who employed various processes including hammering, cutting, burnishing, and perforating to create the highly symbolic jewelry. The resulting pieces were used as a form of communication for the Mapuche people. For the retrafe, the symbolism was the most important component, and would dictate the form the final piece would take. The range of pieces worn typically would include a chain link belt (trarilonko), earrings (chaway, upul), chest adornment (trapelakucha, sigil, runi, llol-llol), breast pins (akucha), and shawl clasps (tupu). The pieces were composed of silver plates which could be square, rectangular, trapezoidal, or rounded and smaller pieces were often joined by links.
Mapuche women wore this jewelry during ceremonies and rituals such as the burials of important people, and celebrations of the harvest. The head and chest were most heavily decorated, protecting vital organs which were thought to have magical attributes. The most valuable pieces were often worn on the chest. Abstracted, geometric shapes and designs often formed symbols of fertility, and older pieces incorporated pre-Columbian writing, along with figures of birds, insects, humans, and ophidians. The jewelry would also infuse the wearer with a sense of dignity and afford her protection from evil spirits. For this reason, jewelry was often worn to receive strangers who could be perceived as dangerous.
The art form reached its zenith toward the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th century. Today, antique jewelry is very scarce, due to the Mapuche custom of melting down old pieces to make new ones that incorporate evolving styles and also the practice of pawning the jewelry for merchandise and food.
Julia brought back some beautiful contemporary Mapuche jewelry from her recent trip to Chile. These pieces are made from coin silver, pewter, copper, and woven textiles with sterling silver findings, and follow traditional methods and symbolism.
Von Bennewitz, Raul Morris. Mapuche Silver. Photography by Juan Carlos Gedda O. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Kactus, ca 1975.