Cuenca’s rich crafts tradition draws tourists and provides a livelihood for thousands

May 24, 2017

By Sylvan Hardy

Writing for the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2009, travel writer and art critic Otto Kirchner extolled the richness of Cuenca’s tradition of arts and crafts. “Whether its ceramics, leather goods, jewelry, tapestry, painting or sculpture, the quality and variety of the work is exceptional. I found it to be every bit as good as that of Cuenca’s sister city, Cusco.”

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A Cuenca artist decorates hand-crafted dinnerware.

On assignment to review South America’s UNESCO heritage sites, Kirchner found himself captivated by the crafts vendors set up along the Tomebamba River as part of Cuenca’s independence festivities. “One of my great pleasures, wherever I travel, is checking out local crafts fairs. It reveals a lot about a place and I liked what I saw in Cuenca.”

Based on archeological records, Cuenca’s crafts tradition dates back more than two thousand years, beginning with ceramics and weavings. About 1,000 years ago, the area’s Cañari inhabitants began to fashion necklaces, pendants and masks from the gold and silver found in local rivers and streams.

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One of dozens of craft shops in Cuenca

The modern crafts tradition began with the Spanish in the early 16th century when Ecuador became the arts center of Latin America. Spanish priests and missionaries trained native artisans in religious painting, sculpture and ceramics and, although early works were mostly European recreations, the Spanish soon recognized the artistry of the indigenous imagination and this became widely incorporated into Ecuadorian works by the beginning of 17th century.

Of all its crafts, including the famous toquilla straw hats, commonly called Panama hats, Cuenca may be most famous for its ceramics. The Spanish introduced European designs and techniques that were eagerly adopted by local potters. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Cuenca became known as a center for the production of hand-crafted dinnerware. The tradition continues today at Artesa, a locally owned manufacturer that sells its products throughout Ecuador and exports to the U.S. and Europe.

Cuenca’s Eduardo Segovia and Eduardo Vega, Ecuador’s foremost living ceramicists, have established international reputations in the craft. Segovia’s work, whimsically borrowing from traditions as far-ranging as the Italian Renaissance and the Aztecs, has exhibited widely and has received particular attention in Europe. Vega, who has a studio and showroom in Turi, south of Cuenca, is known for several large public installations in Quito and Cuenca.

The towns and villages surrounding Cuenca also provide a mother lode of exceptional crafts, many having developed artistic specialties. You’ll find ikat fabric and leather goods in Gualaceo; silver and gold filigree jewelry in Chordeleg; and ceramics, baskets and musical instruments in Sigsig and San Bartolomé.

“When you visit Cuenca, by all means, buy a Panama hat,” says Der Spiegel’s Kirchner. “A good one is a work of art. On the other hand, don’t ignore the city’s other creations. If you do, you’ll be missing a lot.”