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'Vegetable Ivory' Reborn

By María Isabel García*

In its natural state, it looks like what it is: a nut produced by a palm tree. But in the hands of artisans or jewelers, the 'tagua', valued for its qualities of hardness and its color, changes its appearance.

BOGOTA - In a small workshop in downtown Bogotá a young artisan puts the final touches on a set of earrings and a necklace made of silver and 'tagua', the plant-based ivory that is becoming the rage among jewelry designers here.

The tagua is the nut produced by the ivory palm (Phytelephas seemannii, Phytelephas macrocarpa), exploited since the colonial era and known as ivory, blackhead, Brazilian rocknut, or chichón.

Today, "tagua has been reborn and is the latest trend," Josué, a jeweler in the Colombian capital tells Tierramérica as he polishes a small triangle of ivory mounted in silver.

This set of earrings and necklace is one of a dozen ordered by an exclusive boutique in a northern district of the city, where its price will triple by merely displaying it in the shopwindow.

The ivory palm, measuring five meters tall with a thin trunk, produces bunches of fruit that can weigh up to 12 kilos. Each fruit, similar to a pineapple, contains six to nine seeds.

As the fruit matures -- over six to 12 months -- the seed grows harder and reaches a thickness of 1.5 cm, while its color changes from white to light ochre.

Hardness and color are the properties that indicate the quality of this plant material, one of the first to be exploited when the Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Four thousand tons of tagua were exported in 1880 from the port of Tumaco, on Colombia's Pacific coast. At the time, one pound of this seed fetched seven cents on the dollar on the New York exchange.

The demand for tagua arose in the industries producing buttons, umbrella handles, walking canes, pipes and other utensils. But this plant-based ivory fell out of favor when plastics emerged.

"I knew about tagua, but only in the toys and miniature decorations that my grandmother brought from Chiquinquirá," recalls Josué.

That city, in the central department of Boyacá, is famous for its Basilica of the Virgin and for the tagua objects produced by its artisans since the early 20th century.

There and in neighboring Tinjacá lives the Bonilla family, three generations that have fomented this treasure since 1917, when Horencio Bonilla traveled to the jungle area of Carare and returned with some tagua seeds.

"He was curious about it because he was an ebony-worker, and saw that he could carve the seeds with the same tools he used for the wood," artist Carmen Elisa Bonilla, Horencio's granddaughter, told Tierramérica.

"My grandfather, my father and my siblings, we have taught approximately 100 artisans to work with tagua, many of whom have set up their own workshops," she said.

This plant-based material also serves as material for artisans in other parts of Colombia, such as in Solano Bay, in the Pacific coast department of Chocó, where the governmental enterprise Crafts of Colombia is promoting a program for training in design and production in tagua for 30 artisans from the black and the indigenous Emberá communities.

From there, and from other regions, emerge jewelry, trays, napkin holders and an array of other useful and decorative items. Many make their way to the annual artisan fair in Bogotá, where negotiations are paving the way for exports of vegetable ivory products.

* María Isabel García is an IPS correspondent.

Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados


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Tagua nuts - sustainable ivory

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