The jewelry that Hilda and Sonia Cachi have been making for decades reflects centuries of history and tradition in their native Peru.
The sisters — they are two of seven sisters, in fact, all of whom are silversmiths — say they draw inspiration from their Indigenous and Spanish heritage while also embracing more contemporary designs. And that range was on display at the International Folk Art Market, held in Santa Fe in July: from playful bug-eyed frogs to ornate Sacred Heart images, the Catholic representation of Jesus’s heart shining with divine light.
Hilda Cachi — at 68, the eldest of the seven — said her work often incorporates Inca iconography, such as sun and moon deities or the hummingbird, considered a spiritual messenger. “All the pieces we make have a meaning,” she said. A single brooch might include several symbols, such as a tableau of flowers and animals and human figures, with little charms dangling below.
She also had shawl pins called tupus — a jewelry item that Peru’s Indigenous peoples were making long before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Hilda said she had made tupus that were 35 centimeters (almost 14 inches), but the ones she brought to Santa Fe were smaller because many Americans were put off by the long, sharp pins.
A Range in Silver
The Cachi sisters grew up in Cuzco, once the capital of the Incan empire. Hilda and three others still live there, as does their 90-year-old father, Gregorio Cachi, a celebrated master silversmith. The other three live in Lima.
Sonia Cachi, 55, who belongs to the Lima contingent, said she was more inclined than some of her siblings to try out new designs. “I’m always innovating,” she said. “I can see a stone that I like and I’ll turn it into a piece of jewelry.”
The collection she brought to Santa Fe included drop earrings: some with Peruvian stones, such as green amazonite or blue sodalite, and others with woven textiles framed in silver. She also had necklaces of braided silver, accented with oval pieces of spiny oyster in bright orange.
Both sisters had variations of devotional pendants, called relicarios, painted in the style of Spanish colonial art, with the Virgin Mary on one side and often a saint on the reverse. A niece, Dahilma Quispe Cachi (the daughter of their sister Martha), had done the miniature paintings — some on mother-of-pearl, others on copper, aluminum or cloth. Then Hilda and Sonia had created a variety of silver frames, from simple to intricate, for the artwork.
The sisters acknowledged that their prices at the market, where they have sold since 2012, were higher than what they charge in Peru because they have to cover their travel and lodging expenses. A pendant that usually costs $80 in Cuzco might go for $120 in Santa Fe, according to Hilda.
But over the course of the market’s long weekend, she added, they could sell what might take them six months to sell at home.
For the Cachi sisters — in birth order: Hilda, Nélida, Sofía, Martha, Sonia, Verónica and Almeida — jewelry making has provided a reliable livelihood over the years, a way to pay for their children’s schooling or to buy homes. Each of the sisters has her own workshop, and some own small jewelry stores or sell at folk art fairs in Peru, other Latin American countries and the United States.
As for the next generation, 10 of the sisters’ 16 children are involved in the jewelry business either part time or full time, whether in design, production or sales, Sonia said. (And, she added, she has a 4-year-old granddaughter who already seems to have an eye for jewelry.)
Much of the Cachis’ work is still done by hand — or more like by many hands, counting all the daughters, sons, nieces, nephews and husbands, along with some nonfamily employees, who work with them. But the Cachis and their helpers do use machines to polish the metal and to do a few other tasks, such as making silver wire or rolling the metal into sheets. The silver they use, Sonia said, is at least 95 percent pure and is mined and processed in Peru and sold by the kilo in grain form.
Depending on the piece of jewelry, they might cast molten silver, make chains, twist wire into delicate filigree patterns or use a hammer and chisel to push out a relief design, a process known as repoussé.
“The Cachi sisters are very well known for silver smithing in Peru,” said Estela Miranda, director of the National Museum of Peruvian Culture, a public institution in Lima managed by the Ministry of Culture. In a recent video interview, she said the museum had purchased some tupus and a silver chest made by Hilda and Martha, and their sister Nélida often gives talks and demonstrations for museum visitors.
“All Us Sisters”
The family patriarch tends to be the one in the spotlight — notably, Mr. Cachi was recognized as a Meritorious Person of Culture in 2017 by the ministry. His work over the years has included fine gold jewelry and elaborate religious objects in silver for local churches, and he has been known for using traditional artisanal methods to cast silver jewelry in clay molds.
But his daughters do fine work in their own right, Ms. Miranda said. Hilda, for example, has won several honors, including a UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts in the Andean Region in 2014.
It is not that unusual nowadays to see female metalsmiths in Peru, Hilda said, but what sets her family apart is that “all of us sisters work in the same art form.”
Mr. Cachi talked about that in a video posted online last year after he received an award at a conference on jewelry making and silverwork held in Cuzco: “My daughters, who were at my side since they were little girls, were watching how I was working. And in this way, all my daughters have learned my craft.”
As each one entered elementary school, she was expected to spend time every afternoon in their father’s home workshop, using cotton string to buff and polish the jewelry he had made to sell in his shop.
In Santa Fe, Hilda and Sonia explained that their father had started to learn how to work with silver when he was around 10 years old, as part of a prevocational program offered in the elementary school he attended in San Pablo, a small district southeast of Cuzco. The teacher saw that he had talent and eventually took him on as an apprentice.
As a young man, Mr. Cachi and his wife, Jesús Trinidad Yupanqui, moved to Cuzco, where he honed his skills working for other jewelers before opening his own business. The couple had nine children, all daughters, but two died in childhood; Mrs. Cachi died in 1979.
These days Mr. Cachi spends little time in the workshop at the family home in Cuzco; Hilda said his eyesight and hearing had deteriorated.
Both Hilda and Sonia described their father as a “traditionalist” and said he has not always approved of directions they have taken in their work, such as incorporating more natural stones into their pieces.
“He criticizes a lot. But then later, he gets quiet,” Hilda said with a chuckle. “‘This sold well,’ he’ll say. ‘You should make more.’”