The Peruvian Handmade Jewelry Guide

The Peruvian Handmade Jewelry Guide

The Peruvian Handmade Jewelry Guide

The south american country of Peru is famous for its impressive architectural sites and the stunning natural beauty of the Andes mountains. But did you know that its unique history makes for a remarkable jewelry tradition? That’s right, even if you can’t make it to Machu Picchu, you can still get a taste of Peruvian culture by wearing beautiful handmade artisan jewelry from Peru.

The History of Peruvian Jewelry

When Spanish explorers reached modern-day Peru in the 16th century, the Europeans expected to find endless quantities of gold and other riches. They were so impressed with the wealth of the flourishing Incan Empire that they were convinced they found the mythical land of gold, called “El Dorado.” Although “El Dorado” was not found in modern-day Peru, large quantities of silver and gold were discovered in the mountainous region.

Incan culture used a wide variety of jewelry types across social classes. With jeweled crowns, earrings, nose rings, sandals, bracelets, necklaces, and even chest aprons, jewelry could be worn on almost any part of the body. The materials used to make the jewelry communicated information about the wearer, such as social class.

The Significance of Peruvian Jewelry

Incan mythology attaches special meaning to both silver and gold. Silver represented the tears of the moon. Similarly, gold symbolized the sun god, whose son was the king of the Incas. For the Incans, these precious metals were viewed primarily as a spiritual material rather than a tool to acquire and retain wealth.

Image source: Smithsonian Magazine

Gold was particularly sacred to the Incas, and was only worn by the king as proof of his divine birth. Silver was less sacred but still considered special, and was reserved to decorate shrines, make shoes for the king, and form jewelry for nobles. Copper was most often used in jewelry for the general public.

Symbolism in Peruvian Accessories

Jewelry was passed down from generation to generation as a way of preserving oral histories. This was particularly important because the Incas did not rely on a written language. Spanish conquest and looting disrupted this practice and took away much of this tradition. Today, modern Peruvian jewelers are combining historical jewelry-making techniques with colonial influences in an effort to reclaim their own history.

Image source: Mo Beta Glass

Figures in Peruvian Accessories

In Incan culture, several figures had special significance. These figures were frequently used in jewelry designs and each symbolized a particular idea. The most popular figures included:

  • Snakes: represents the underworld
  • Pumas: represents all life on earth
  • Human figures: represents human life
  • Sun disc: represents the divine / heaven
  • Condors: represents the divine, guides people’s souls to the next world after death

Geometric Shapes in Peruvian Accessories

Beyond the more obvious symbolism of figures, Incan jewelry also gave special symbolic meaning to geometric shapes such as spirals, triangles, and knots.

Looking at the striking handmade Incan necklace pictured below, you immediately notice the triangular stone surrounded by spirals. Additionally, beautiful spiraled circles make up the chain of the necklace. Believe it or not, each of these abstract geometric shapes are attached to a special meaning!

Image source: Mo Beta Glass

In Incan tradition, spirals represent evolution. Spirals are also important in other areas of Incan art. For example, the remarkable Nasca lines incorporate spirals. The Nasca lines are giant geoglyphs made by the Incas in the desert of modern-day Peru. Remarkably, they are still clearly visible today.

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Triangles represent the universe in traditional Peruivan jewelry. Circles are used to communicate the idea of infinity. The most common shapes to encounter in handmade artisan jewelry from Peru are the Incan cross (chakana) and knots (quipus) . The Incan cross and knots each come from a unique historical tradition.

The Incan Cross (Chakana) in Peruvian Jewelry

The Incan cross (chakana) is a four-sided cross with a circle in the middle. Experts are still debating the exact meaning of the cross. Most believe that on the surface level, it represents the southern cross constellation. The Incas believed the constellation to be the center of the universe.

Image source: Tour in Peru

But the symbolism doesn’t stop there! Each of the steps in between the cardinal points also has its own meaning. Each of the four corners represent a phase of human development:

  • Upper right: responsibility, productivity, being present
  • Lower right: expression, passion, joy
  • Upper left: love, trust, relationships
  • Lower left: protection, awareness, gratitude

Lastly, the circle at the center of the chakana is sometimes referred to as the “portal.” It represents the attainment of spiritual wisdom when one has “completed” their personal journey to reach their divine self.

Additional meanings can be attached to the chakana, but for the most part it represents a guide to improving the inner self. In addition to jewelry, the chakana can be found all over Peru, from architectural sites to paintings to ceramics.

Quipus (Knots) in Peruvian Jewelry

Without a written language, the Incas created a system of knots (called quipus) to keep track of numbers. This ancient practice has inspired makers of Peruvian handmade jewelry to incorporate gemstones instead of knots. Examples of this quipus-inspired design tradition can be seen in handmade rings below.

Image source: Mo Beta Glass

Modern Day Handmade Artisan Jewelry from Peru

Civilizations after the Incas favored stones such as amber, onyx, tiger eyes, obsidian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, glass, coral and more. These gemstones are still popular in handmade artisan jewelry from Peru.

Image source: Mo Beta Glass

Even today, most Peruvian jewelry is handmade by craftspeople. Typically gold and silversmiths pass down their skills to the next generation. Aspiring jewelry designers without a mentor typically teach themselves because formal jewelry design programs are rare.

As a result, modern Peruvian handmade jewelry is infused with centuries of tradition, history, and culture. Owning and wearing peruvian accessories does more than make a bold fashion statement. It also celebrates the vibrant, rich Peruvian culture of yesterday and today.

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