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What it means to be an artisan

Uncovering the Global Tradition

What is an artisan?

An artisan is someone that works with their hands to create unique, functional and/or decorative items using traditional techniques. Artisans are masters of their craft and create products such as clothes, toys, tools or furnishings. These artisanal techniques are learned through decades of tribal knowledge and passed down within families and communities. Many artisans depend on resources from their nearby surroundings to create these items. In economic terms, an artisan is a small producer of goods who owns their production and makes a living from their trade.

Artisans have mastered a specific trade, typically native to their region, culture, or background. They maintain theoretical and empirical knowledge about how to expertly create a specific good and transfer their working craftsmanship to forthcoming generations. There are other artisanal techniques in Mexico that are more male dominant, like working with wood to create wooden whisk stirrers — called “molinillo’s” — for chocolate drinks, or with stone to create mortar and pestles for the famous “molcajetes” used to prepare traditional salsas and guacamole.

What’s the difference between an artisanal product and a handicraft?

Although in some parts of the world the terms are now used interchangeably, artisanal products differ considerably from handicrafts. The similarities lies in that handicrafts and artisanal products can both be made by hand and of the same materials. However, artisans possess skills passed down from generations within their communities and create products that uphold their tradition and are expressions of their culture. Handicrafts can be self-taught or learned in a school. Handicrafts are not goods created to communicate items of deep traditional or symbolic meaning, or follow an ideology, express a cultural identity or the heritage of a society.

Are all artisans women?

No, anyone can be an artisan! Across the globe there are millions of artisans creating products that represent many traditions. Each artisans experience is unique to their own, and for many gender does not play a role. Living in Mexico, it is more common for an indigenous women to be an artisan associated with textile production as it was more traditional for men to be outside of the home and associated with hunting and agriculture. There are other artisanal techniques in Mexico that are more male dominant, like working with wood to create wooden whisk stirrers, called “molinillo’s” for chocolate drinks or with stone to create mortar and pestles for the famous “molcajetes” used to prepare traditional salsas and guacamole.

How do artisans learn their craft?

Artisans learn from their family and community. Starting as children, they are taught and passed down techniques, skills and secrets from one generation to another. Since these artisan techniques are ever-present in the lifestyle of these communities – they have a great culture meaning for artisans. Creating something by hand can be seen as a way to supplement income for families, but it is also a way to communicate culture and heritage.

What does it mean to be an artisan?

We asked 75 artisans across five communities (Naupan, Cuetzalan, Hueyapan, Villa Victoria and Queretaro) what it meant for them to be an artisan. These were the top words that they used: tradition, pride, identity, fabric, heritage, pride, knowledge, community, art, work, home, mexican, colors, origin, family, love, handmade, women, imagination, remembering our ancestors, perseverance.

What is an artisanal technique?

It is the process in which raw materials are transformed into artistic pieces. It is in these processes where the cultural heritage is more tangible as its manifestations show us how each community transform their resources into utilitarian, aesthetic and symbolic objects. Some artisans keep “trade secrets” that aren’t revealed to people outside their communities. The artisanal techniques are considered as the most tangible manifestations of the immaterial cultural heritage.

How many artisans are there?
There is no global number. We did some research and we conservatively estimate that there are over 200 million artisans all around the world. In Mexico 10 million people define themselves as artisans. Within the past 5 years, we have been refining our process and grew our team from five artisans to 180. While we are honored to work with so many artisans, we continue to increase our impact within Mexico and have ambitions to grow internationally.


What are examples of artisan products?

Originally, artisans made products that they needed for their everyday activities in their communities as there were no factories or shops around. As industrialization occurred, most of artisanal products became decorative or special objects to be bought from the people outside their communities. Today, consumers have a newfound appreciation for these handmade artisanal goods as they are not mass-produced and full of meaning. Some specific technique examples include:

Ceramics and pottery: Objects mainly produced out of clay and baked at very high temperatures. In Mexico, some of the most recognized are the Black Clay or “Barro Negro” from Oaxaca and the Talavera from Puebla. In Africa, there exist clay pots used for cooking traditional dishes such as the Moroccan Tajines.

Textiles: This is the most popular technique among the artisan population. Artisans use many natural threads for their textile production. Some of the most common machines artisans use are the waist loom and the pedal loom. However there are an extensive range of techniques, each one of them with a unique beauty and complexity. In Latin America artisans create textiles with Pre-Columbian heritage, made from wool and natural paintings, charged with numerous symbolic meanings. One example of these are the famous Mapuches Textiles from Chile.

Wood: This tradition is used for religious purposes, and often the production of traditional masks and fantastic animal figures commonly known in Mexico as Alebrijes (as seen in Coco)! In Sub-Saharan Africa, the wood masks are used in rituals and religious ceremonies.

Metalworking: Artisans employ different metals such as iron, steel and tin to produce a variety of articles; from which perhaps the bells are the most famous ones. In Punjab, India the metals employed are believed to be beneficiary for health and they are used for ritual or utilitarian purposes. One example of them are the brass and copper utensils known as Thatheras of Jandiala Guru.

Goldsmith / Precious-metal craftwork: this technique employs precious metals, such as gold, silver and bronze, which are melted and shaped by a hammer and a chisel. In Russia, the Faberge Eggs, inspired in the Easter egg tradition are popular among Russian nobility are the most known Goldsmith craftwork.

Jewelry: Made out of gold, silver, bronze and copper. Artisans employ different techniques during this production process. During the Pre-Hispanic era, it represented social status; it was common to incorporate human bones, jade and shells. In Latin America this is a Pre-Columbian tradition to use jade and shells prevails in towns like Taxco in Mexico or Mampox in Columbia.

Natural fibers: This technique employs a diverse range of dry plants such as reed and wicker to produce different fabrics and objects. It employs natural colours for its pigmentation, but It has been affected by the over extraction of natural resources. The famous Pintao Hats from Panama are an example of this articraft. This manual production employs five plants and swamp mud.

Carton and Paper: A tradition originally employed to produce costumes for the gods. In today’s Mexico, another example of it use is the production of “Papel Picado” employed in different national holidays, masks, alebrijes (fantastic animal figures) and piñatas. In China, the Xuan Paper is a representation of a paper handicraft that has been widely used in calligraphy, painting and book printing.

Saddlery: A technique that employs leather to produce a range of articles. It is closely related to the cattle raising and horseback riding. Also, it is employed in the production of shoes, clothes and other contemporary articles. One example of saddlery and a nearly universal element among native American tribes clothing in USA and Canada are the Indian Moccasins.

Glass: An activity brought to Latin America by the Spaniards during the colony. It requires a lot of expertise for the management of melted glass and the limited timing to shape it. Tablewares and other decorative products produced with this technique are very recognized. In central Mexico, Glassblowing is a technique used in some workshops still today. In Italy, the Murano Glass used mostly for decoration is one of the oldest artisan tradition of Europe.