Keeping the art of filigree tambourine jewelry alive

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How a fourth-generation craftsman and former law student built a brand to protect the dying craft of filigree tambourine. Photos by JULI SUAZO

Mang Nelson’s filigree tambourine jewelry is modern, but not quite; he calls it “modern heritage.” A fourth generation craftsman and Living Treasure Awardee of the Province of Ilocos Sur, Mang Nelson is the designer behind local label Kaya Mana that focuses on traditional jewelry with a minimalist and contemporary feel, like a gold drum-shaped bead that can be worn as studs or a bracelet with interlocking lace-like chains.

Born into a family of jewelers, 52 year-old Mang Nelson learned the craft when he was a child. As he started a family of his own, he — like his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather — relied on making filigree tambourine-style jewelry for over 40 years to make a living, put his children through school, and build his own house. “Ang filigree tambourine necklace ay ang kuwintas na buhay na ala-ala ng aming ama,” he said. “Dahil sa paglilikha ng kuwintas na ito, lahat kaming anim na magkakapatid ay napag-aral at napagtapos ng aming mga magulang.”

But as the bespoke handicraft waned in popularity against foreign goods, western trends, and rise of machinery, Mang Nelson realized that filigree tambourine was slowly becoming a “dying craft.” He also came to learn that unscrupulous businessmen were duping local customers by mimicking and overselling faux filigree tambourine jewelry (which is traditionally made with only 18K gold) produced using 10K or 14K gold at exorbitant prices. And because of these, both new and local customers developed a fear of buying from their community of craftsmen. The continued decline in demand for his pieces left him at a crossroads between joining his wife, an Overseas Filipino Worker in Canada, to make ends meet or continue saving the cultural heritage that his family had fought for and preserved for years.

Fourth generation craftsman and Living Treasure Awardee Mang Nelson is the designer behind local label Kaya Mana that focuses on traditional jewelry with a minimalist and contemporary feel. Photo by JULI SUAZO

That’s when he crossed paths with Paolo Palanca who, at the time, was a legal management student taking a sociology minor purely out of interest. During a sociology and anthropology course taught by his university’s Head of Cultural Heritage Studies Fernando Zialcita, Palanca was introduced to Mang Nelson who is the last practicing craftsman in Ilocos last 2017. Together with his groupmates Tenny Cayco, Bea Constantino, and Nikki Vocalan, he recorded and documented everything he could about the waning craft.

“When we first met, [Mang Nelson] said that there would be times they would go on for more than a year without selling a single piece which pushed him to take temporary jobs in construction or housework to make ends meet,” Palanca said. “It was heartbreaking. That was why our research was so important because if the last master craftsman chose to leave, then the knowledge and skills of the craft would go with him and we would lose a precious part of our cultural heritage.”

Filigree tambourine jewelry connects us to our past. Though the use of gold is an artifact of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines (the relikaryos or lockets themselves contained religious artifacts or relics of saints, strung on chains like rosary beads), there is an infusion of the artisans’ own culture in the design itself and the choice of motif.

The word “filigree” refers to the art of turning gold ores into fine thin wires to be woven into the intricate designs while the etymology of “tambourine” remains to be fluid. According to craftsmen in Ilocos, the word is derived from “tambol” which is synonymous to “drum” (a style of necklace bead). Historical literature (Ramon Villegas’ book Hiyas) states that the origin of “tambourine” or “tamborin” traces back to “tambour” which refers to the frame used to guide looped and twirled gold wire in the making of these fine designs.

“During our fieldwork, [Mang Nelson] showed us some of the last few pieces he still had left unsold for so many years wrapped in simple red craft paper and stored in plastic pouches,” Palanca shared. “I think it was at this moment that my goal evolved from preserving knowledge of the tradition to trying to preserve the tradition itself.”

Going beyond research and documentation, Palanca wanted to revive the dying craft by helping Mang Nelson and his family sell his jewelry designs, bring it to areas they weren’t able to reach before, and conceptualize with modernized filigree tambourine designs. “This was when preservation of this cultural heritage also meant the promotion of it,” he shared. Having taken a number of business and marketing courses, Palanca built the brand of Kaya Mana in order to market Mang Nelson’s pieces to a larger reach.

“‘Kaya’ points to strength while ‘Mana’ refers to inheritance and heritage so putting them together, it becomes ‘the power of our heritage’ while also being a play on the word ‘kayamanan’ which points out the value of our rich history,” he said.

Mang Nelson designed new filigree tambourine jewelry with a more modern look exclusive to Kaya Mana. Photo courtesy of PAOLO PALANCA

As weeks passed by, Palanca witnessed the project grow bigger and so did his goals. “I wanted to show him that Filipinos are still interested in his works of wearable art so that he wouldn’t be forced to leave the country to support his family,” he said.

“Our group wanted to help him sell and make it a sufficient source of income for him — enough for him not to need to leave the country just to support his family, finish putting his kids through school, and finish the construction of his then roofless house,” said Palanca.

While he had expected the original course of his life after university to lead him towards finishing law school, Palanca had discovered a new career path in continuing the business of Kaya Mana with the purpose of bringing a piece of Filipino heritage into the modern era, one fine handcrafted piece at a time.

Paolo and Manang Cynthia (Mang Nelson’s sister who assists in the administrative side of Kaya Mana) were able to earn enough profits to complete the construction of the roof of their house Ilocos Sur last March 2019. Photo courtesy of PAOLO PALANCA

“You’d think [filigree tambourine jewelry is] something old, something very traditional, something you’d only wear for your Filipiniana Day or cultural events,” Palanca explained. “It has to break through that mentality. It can’t just be limited to that one perception that that’s all it’s good for. It needs to become a more contemporary type of jewelry in the sense you can walk on the streets and see someone wearing filigree tambourine jewelry.”

​​There’s a special kind of magic about something that’s made entirely by hand. The delicate and elaborate process of making a single piece of filigree tambourine jewelry involves antique tools passed on from generations such as old draw-plates, molders, and pamuk-pok (pounder). Strings are cut into pieces and melted into miniscule balls of gold which are placed on the beads to add detail to each and every jewelry design. For Mang Nelson and his family, the craft was more than just their business but also an artistry that carried personal significance to his family’s lifestyle.

He said, “Napakaimportante ang filigree tambourine sa akin kasi ito ay isang art. Lalo na, ito ay buhay na ala-ala sa aming ama na siyang nagturo kung paano gumagawa ng tambourine jewelry. Pinili naming i-preserve ang lokal tradisyon na ito dahil sa Ilokos lang makikita ito. (Filigree tambourine is very important for me because it’s an art form. Especially because it’s a living memory that has been handed down to us from our fathers who taught it to us).”

Uncompromising to the commitment to honest pricing, sustainable production, and ethical sourcing, Palanca continues to work directly with Mang Nelson to maintain the passion, dedication, and care that allows them to preserve the art and tradition that filigree tambourine jewelry carries.

“For me, the goal is for the craftsmen to no longer need us,” shared Palanca. “Eventually, I hope to return to the point before the industry declined — when there was a steady demand for filigree tambourine jewelry and craftsmen like Mang Nelson can sustainably manage the entire business end-to-end by themselves and start crafting together again as a family.”

The delicate and elaborate process of making a single piece of filigree tambourine jewelry involves antique tools passed on from generations such as old draw-plates, molders, and pamuk-pok (pounder). Photo by JULI SUAZO

“Ang plano ay gumawa ng tambourine jewelries for Kaya Mana para lalong ma-preserve ang filigree making, lalong lalo na ang tambourine para mabuhay uli ang matamlay na industry ng pag-aalahas (The plan is to make tambourine jewelry for Kaya Mana so we can preserve filigree making, especially tambourine so we can keep the industry alive),” said Mang Nelson.