I have spent most of my adult life regularly travelling to projects to work with artisans in different countries all over the world. I have loved every moment of these trips from meeting new people, creating friendships, learning new words, sounds and landscapes, scratching the surface of a new culture, political situation, looking at the history and getting a sense of what life is like.
I went to Bolivia for the first time in 2009 with only the name of a cooperative gold mine that was piloting to become fair trade near La Paz. I shall never forget my initial impressions and excitement landing in El Alto airport and watching in surprise as old oxygen tanks were wheeled out for fainting and breathless passengers as the high altitude hit.
Driving down the steep mountain road into La Paz as the sun rose hitting the sharp mountain tops with golden light I was enthralled with this magical place.
But life is hard in the Andes, you can see it on people's faces, the climate and poverty and a difficult history, smiles are not easily given and it takes time to build relationships of trust.
I met Javier through the leader of the cooperative gold mine. Javier welcomed me into his tiny workshop in the middle of the Coca market on a steep hill in the bustling city. Chola women with rainbow shawls and perched bowler hats and full skirts sit with vegetables and coca leaves for sale along the road. The leaves are used legally for ceremony, for tea and for chewing. All the gold miners chew coca for energy for appetite suppression and to help the body with the altitude.
Javier welcomed me warmly and with my limited Spanish so began a long friendship. He quickly understood my design ideas and knew the gold mines well, having been a miner when he was young, as was his father. He knows everything about gold, its origins, which mountain and which point on the mountain from its colour and shape. He makes jewellery for the Chola ladies in the city but enjoys the different challenges of the work we do together.
Warm pure gold leaves, hand hammered, pre-Columbian inspired bells and the wonderful smooth warm worn pebbles he casts from stones we collect from river beds all from Fair Mined gold. We now work with Yani a mine high in the Andes that has recently been certified as Fair Mined – this means it has passed a strict set of standards to ensure a clean and safe work practice, every year the standards are raised to ensure that the mine is improving its impact on the surrounding environment.
An Aymara Indian from Bolivia, Javier is the son of a Gold miner who began working in the mines of Tipuwani himself, at a very young age. He later moved onto goldsmithing and now has a tiny workshop in Miraflores near the coca market. From this little space, he makes beautiful creations for the indigenous Chola ladies of La Paz who invest heavily in the precious metal.