Tagua Jewelry: The Making of Vegetable Ivory Art

A popular source of local jewelry and touristy trinkets is “tagua” (pronounced “TAWG-wuh”) or “vegetable ivory.” Tagua is a very hard, white nut that grows on six species of palm trees in South America, one species of which is found along Ecuador’s coast.

Tagua palm

Cluster of seed pods containing the tagua nuts

 

Tagua is referred to as vegetable ivory because once dried, it can be carved and closely resembles the ivory from an elephant’s tusks.

Sequence showing how the tagua nut can be carved and dyed into intricate pieces of art. Image taken from an interesting online article about how the production of tagua helps protect elephants and South American rainforests.

 

Because of its close similarities to ivory, tagua is now often used as a substitute for ivory in the global market, which not only protects elephants from being killed for their valuable tusks, but also provides many jobs as well as an economic incentive to protect the forests where the palms are found.

Items made from tagua can be purchased in markets across Ecuador but the source of this unique artisanry is here along the Central Coast, especially in the small village of Sosote (“so-SO-teh”), outside of Portoviejo.

The art of carving tagua was brought to Sosote in 1993 by two local cousins who had spent several years in the Province of Guayas creating tagua pieces for an Italian man who exported them to Europe. Today, there are over 60 tagua workshops  in the Sosote area.

Below are photos showing the process of transforming the tagua nut into jewelry, which in Sosote usually takes place in a single location; i.e. the workshops are typically located behind the storefront that sells the finished products.

Tagua artisan and owner of one of the tagua storefronts in Sosote

 

The process begins by collecting nuts from the palms (Phytelephas aequatorialis, which literally means “elephant plant”)

 

The nuts are polished using a tumbler with metal beads.

 

A grinder is used to shape the pieces.

 

Finer details are added using a Dremel.

 

The pieces are then dyed in large batches.

 

Now the tagua beads are ready to be turned into jewelry.

 

Women, often the wives and daughters of the tagua carvers, make necklaces, bracelets, and earrings in the store where they are sold.

 

A sampling of some tagua necklaces.

 

Prices for necklaces range from $3-$10.

 

More necklace designs.

 

Selections are quite extensive and even include tagua rosaries.

 

Tagua is also crafted into bracelets, earrings and rings.

 

Keychains for $1-$2

 

A variety of other tagua creations that make unique gifts for friends and family.

 

Tagua art and jewelry-making is an excellent example of how the purchase of local, sustainable products not only supports the creation of jobs but can also make important contributions to society and the environment. Ecuador is full of untapped niches such as these, many that are yet to be discovered.

Cultural Peculiarities about Babies

We welcomed our son, Aiden Andrew, to the world on August 23. He was born in a wonderful birthing center outside of Quito.

Proud big brother Kai with baby Aiden

 

After a few days of rest, we spent a solid week running around Quito at the Registro Civil, the Ministry of Foreign Relations passport office, and the US Embassy to process all of the paperwork required to establish Aiden’s dual citizenship. As this was our second child born in Ecuador, we navigated the ins and outs of the country’s famously convoluted system of “tramites” with far more grace this round.

Running around with an infant in arms also quickly reminded us of some of Ecuador’s rather fascinating cultural peculiarities regarding babies. I’ve compiled a list of some of these infant-related idiosyncrasies that were surprising to us as new parents, especially coming from a different culture. 

  1. Epidemiology of the Hiccup: There is a common belief that hiccups can be triggered by the baby feeling cold (see #3 below). Hiccups can be “cured” by licking a small scrap of of paper (newspaper, preferably) and sticking it to the middle of the baby’s forehead. **Side note: When looking for information online related to the origin of this practice in Ecuador, I was fascinated to see that this custom is also used to cure hiccups in other parts of the world including multiple countries in Central Africa and throughout Southeast Asia!

    Paper hiccup cure in action, taken from an blog about an expat family living in Burundi.

  2. Baths Required: Vaccinations given at government-sponsored health clinics (called “sub-centros de salud”) are free for children until they are age five. After each of Kai’s vaccinations, I was instructed to immediately bathe him in a warm bath or else he would become feverish. I was a skeptic but did it anyways to avoid any kind backlash as the unfit gringo parent in town. And you know what? The one time I didn’t bathe him after a shot, he did get a fever a few hours later.
  3. The Baby’s Always Cold: During Kai’s first few weeks, we kept receiving commentaries from very concerned “new acquaintances”  that Kai was cold. The cause for concern was obvious once we became aware of the ubiquitous blanket bundles being carried around town, sometimes even on bright, sunny days. Beneath each large blanket is a warmly dressed baby, donning hat and all. Once again, succumbing to peer pressures and with the desire to avoid public derision, we starting bundling Kai while out running errands. That is until he became covered in little red bumps that we discovered was a heat rash. Oops. But even now with Aiden, we still throw a blanket over his head when out and about for both good measure and to prevent public outcry.  We were literally shooed away from the refrigerated section in the Supermaxi grocery by parents who couldn’t believe that we would be even remotely close to a source of cold air.
  4. Growth spurts: All babies spit up. Some apparently more than others (Aiden, for example). I was bracing myself to receive more unsolicited public commentary if and when Aiden upchucks all over me in public. I was pleasantly relieved to learn that there is the common belief that the more a baby spits up, the bigger he/she will be. Thus far, Aiden’s growth supports this theory in that at week six he has morphed into a 12-lb roly poly and we’re constantly laundering blankets, towels, shirts, pants… everything.
  5. “Parece un chichobello!”  Without exaggeration, we heard this phrase daily when Kai was a baby.  Whether in passing from  giggling hordes of delighted women pointing in Kai’s direction or directly to us when introducing him for the first time, at least one person would say that looked like a chichobello.  After receiving this comment dozens of times, I finally asked, “What IS a chichobello?” Turns out it is a life-sized baby doll who is usually fair skinned, bald, with big, blue eyes. When I looked them up online I realized how right they were, baby Kai (and now Aiden) actually look very chichobello-esque.
     
  6. Strange Photography: In relation to #5 above, complete strangers do not hesitate to take photos of other people’s babies. This phenomenon reminded Tom and I of our travels in China about six years ago where there were a couple of bizarre occasions where four or five total strangers actually stood in line to take a photo with us… or snuck up behind us before we noticed while a friend quickly snapped a photo (I believe that would be known as an inverse “photobomb”)  It was very perplexing to us, especially as we wondered what they did with these random photos of strangers. Do they show them to a couple of friends and then delete them from their camera? Or did we stay on their  card and eventually end up in a photo album on someone’s computer? How does that work?? Anyways, the same thoughts occurred to me as Kai’s mug must have been snapped by friendly strangers at least a hundred times before he turned one.
  7. Birth Details: Along the same lines of having different personal boundaries than in other cultures, one of the most common questions I am asked as a new mom was whether the birth was “normal” (i.e. vaginal) or “cesarea” (C-section). I don’t know why people who have never even met me insist on knowing this private detail, except that vaginal births are becoming less common (C-sections now comprise over 30% of births in Ecuador).
  8. Restaurant Service: Another surprise for us was that upon sitting down at restaurants, often one of the staff members would come and take Kai from us to allow us to order and to eat in peace. The first time this happened we were pretty alarmed as we watched Kai get passed back and forth among various cooing restaurant employees. However, we came to quickly appreciate this custom which allowed us the rare opportunity to converse and eat without the usual interruptions. Besides, Kai was clearly okay with  all the loving attention he was receiving. This probably is one of my best examples on the difference between our cultures. In US society, this pseudo “child care” could never take place these days, due to liability, mistrust, etc.  Here, those things don’t even occur to most people. 

    Pizzaria Napoli run by Fiore provides authentic Italian food  in Crucita. Fiore is also the owner of the Alba Suites condos.

  9. First in Line: Another custom that I totally appreciate is how courteous businesses and the public are to the elderly, people with disabilities,  pregnant women and new moms. If you fall within any of these classes, you either have your own special line or are taken to the front of any existing line. Tom and I reduced our wait time by probably 90% at the Registro Civil in Quito (where the frustration level may actually exceed that of most DMVs in the States)  just because I was holding a newborn. I love that! 

    No such thing as a “quick visit” to the Registro Civil” in Quito

  10. Public Breasts: I also love how unapologetic many woman are about nursing openly in public. Sure, you might see more skin by some women wearing their regular day attire, but breastfeeding in public is still a big deal in US culture. Here, it is not uncommon for a woman to be openly feeding a baby in one arm and pushing her shopping cart with the other.  No one seems to notice or get offended and everyone just goes about their business… which is nice.

 

We’ve been surprised at the number of times our perspective has shifted as we begin to see things from another cultural vantage point.  Just as you see two distinct things if you look at a statue from the front versus the back,  a given experience can be interpreted from two different cultural viewpoints.  It’s the same statue, but what you see is completely determined by how you look at it.

For example, when we first arrived in Ecuador we sat at a restaurant, had a meal, and waited patiently for the bill.  And waited.  And waited some more.  Then finally, we hunted down the owner and, mildly flustered, requested the bill, PLEASE.  We saw “Bad Service” from our cultural viewpoint.  Then, after discussing this with an Ecuadorian friend he explained that traditionally if the owner brings you a bill before you’ve requested it, he is being rude and trying to rush you out of the restaurant.  The same experience from the owner’s vantage point was interpreted as “Being courteous and welcoming.”

In other words, things that at first make ZERO sense begin to make more sense the more you hang around.  We’ve learned to be open and enjoy our experiences here by following  a few general guidelines:  “Make fewer assumptions, ask more questions, and be open to the idea that there just might be another, equally valid, cultural viewpoint to an experience or situation.”  It makes for interesting detective work to ask, “Why might that make sense?”