Peruvian fired clay or ceramic beads hand-painted with geometric motifs are world-famous. Their decoration draws on ancient Andean iconography and they are often assumed to have been made since Inca times. Actually, their production began in Pisac, a town in the Sacred Valley, not far from Cusco, about 30 years ago. Pre-Hispanic societies of this region fashioned beads from semi-precious stones, gold, Amazonian seeds and Pacific sea shells (most notably, those of the spiny oyster, Spondylus spp.). Although clay was used for a variety of utilitarian articles, it was not much used for making beads.
As the original clay source near Pisac began to give out in recent years, bead production there declined and workshops were established in the Peruvian capital of Lima instead. This guide describes how beads are made in the Lima workshop of Juan Manotupa Achancaray and his wife, Aida Luz Loayza Ahuayo. Juan and Aida grew up in bead-making families in Pisac. Juan moved to Lima in 1975 and Aida followed in 1980. Today they are among the largest and most competent ceramic bead producers in Peru.
On the left, red-clay beads from Pisac; on the right, white kaolin-clay beads from Juan's Lima workshop.
A key part of the quality of Juan and Aida's beads is the paste, which is an amalgam of no fewer than five different clays and tempers, including kaolin (a superior white clay) and chalk. The original Pisac paste had a reddish color and beads made there in earlier years may be recognized by that tone as well as by their rougher texture.
Juan is responsible for the workshop, which we will refer to as Juan's workshop. The prepared paste is placed in mounds on a workshop table, then cut into smaller portions, much as dough might be divided in preparation for baking, and rolled out, as if with a rolling pin.
In the past in Pisac, the beads were often hand-shaped, but Juan has devised a special apparatus that operates something like a pasta machine. The clay is stuffed into the top of a metal tube, a lever is pressed down, and it emerges in a long, spaghetti-like strip. The length of the strip is determined by the length of the tube. Its diameter may be varied by selecting tubes of different widths.
Alfredo Becerra, one of Juan's employees, prepares to press down a lever on an apparatus that molds clay into long, spaghetti-like strips.
The clay strips are placed on the table and, when the day's batch has been prepared, are cut into shorter lengths with a straight-edged blade.
Alfredo cuts the clay strips into shorter lengths with a straight-edged blade.
The next step is to run rods through the strips. The rods determine the hole size of the finished beads and also come in different diameters. The rods are allowed to protrude about two inches from either end so that the strips now appear to be on skewers.
Alfredo pushes a rod through a clay strip, effectively skewering it.
Once on the skewers, the clay is placed in wooden or metal forms that give the bead the desired shape. Below, a corrugated metal form is used to shape round beads. This is done by rolling the skewered strip against the form. Like the pasta-machine apparatus, these forms were created in Juan's workshop.
Alfredo rolls a clay strip on a skewer against a metal form to shape the beads.
Once the beads have been shaped, they are separated on the skewer, and set out in the sun to dry. Alternatively, they may be removed from the skewer for drying, then strung back on it. In either case, after drying in the sun, the skewer with the shaped beads is placed in an electric kiln for an initial firing of 4 1/2 hours. The kiln, also, was built in Juan's workshop.
Alfredo places a skewer of shaped beads in an electric kiln for an initial firing of 4 1/2 hours.
After the firing, the beads are painted. In the past, homemade mineral-based pigments were used, but Juan's workshop now employs lead-free commercial paints. However, Juan still uses homemade animal-hair brushes rather than store-bought ones.
In Pisac until recently, beads were strung on cords rather than skewers, with the cords suspended for ease of painting. In Juan's workshop, the painting is done with the beads still on the skewers,. Some painters work down one side of each of the beads before turning the skewer and continuing with the design.
Bead production in Pisac was often a family affair, with children responsible for much of the painting, but in Juan's workshop it is done by Lima art school students or experienced visitors or migrants from Pisac or Cusco.
Vicky Quispe, of Cusco, paints beads on a skewer.
When the painting is completed, the skewers are dunked in a bucket of glaze. The glaze is another difference between Juan's production process and the earlier one. Beads from Pisac sometimes have an uncoated, matte finish. Others are varnished. Glazes are still uncommon with Pisac-made beads.
The glaze goes on opaque but dries clear when the beads are fired a second time, for another 4 1/2 hours. The double firing for a total of 9 hours produces a bead with a true ceramic hardness, a better quality than was possible before electric kilns became available. It also means that it takes an entire day to make one batch of beads.
Photographs of Juan's workshop by Edgardo Ruiz.
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