Sunday, February 26, 2012

Santa Clara de Cobre

Santa Clara del Cobre was a copper town long before the Spanish arrived in the New World. It is almost directly south of Patzcuaro and a little west. It is sometimes called Villa Escalante or Salvador Escalante on maps. The town was dominant in the world of copper for several hundred years until the industries near-demise in the mid 19th century. In the 1940s there was a revival, and in the 1970s recycled copper instead of mined copper began to be used to create their works of art. Now, mainly used copper wire and plumbing pipes and fittings as well as other copper products are melted down and re-used.
The art of working with copper in Santa Clara del Cobre has been passed on from father to son for hundreds of years. Many of the craftsmen are P'urhépecha (Tarascan) Indians who are probably still the majority of the population around Lake Patzcuaro. More than 80% of the area population is employed in some way related to copper. There are at least 250 copper workshops in the area. They process about 450 tons of copper each year – all by hand. Only a few shops are open to the public.
There is a museum that holds some truly marvelous and unique copper works. Each piece is hammered from one piece of copper with no welding involved.
We were able to visit a copper workshop and observe the artisans. First they melt the copper down to a blob (for lack of a better word). Then they beat it into a flat round shape using sledge hammers. One guy turns the hot copper while 3 or 4 others beat a rhythm in perfect time with their large hammers on a solid steel anvil. Note the variety of hammers and tools on the wall and the many copper pieces lying about.
They then begin to work the copper into a more refined shape and the art begins to appear. We are not exactly sure why they sometimes beat the copper when it was still hot from the fire, or sometimes cooled the copper by dipping it in water and then working it.  Note the guy working the bellows to create more heat and the piles of wood in back used to continually feed the fire.
There are many sizes and shapes of anvils and hammers. Each piece is worked using any number of these. Even those things that look like bent nails to the left are different anvils for working smaller pieces. The more they beat on the copper the stiffer and harder it becomes – and more of the copper color begins to appear.
Here is one of the master craftsmen hard at work. Hammering for hours and hours each day builds up some serious arm strength – don’t pick a fight with a coppersmith.