Sardinian filigree artists bring generations of skill to IFAM

Sardinian filigree artists bring generations of skill to IFAM

A Sardinian symbol of of fidelity and self-confidence, the Fenicio Venti ring is made with 18 karat gold by Andrea and Ansula Usai. (Courtesy of the International Folk Art Market)

Every summer for 18 years, often marginalized artisans from across the globe have converged on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill to show and sell their creations at the International Folk Art Market.

Sardinian artists Andrea and Ansula Usai.

Originally planned as a one-time event, the market now draws more than 16,000 visitors to Milner Plaza from Thursday to Sunday. They buy more than $3 million in folk art.

This year’s draw includes more than 150 artists traveling from 49 countries. These artists represent another 25,690 members of cooperatives and groups that ultimately impact the lives of 256,900 family and community members.

Corallo square hook earrings, 18 karat gold and coral by Andrea and Ansula Usai. (Courtesy of the International Folk Art Market)

On average, artists return nearly $20,000 per booth to their native countries.

This year, the Journal contacted filigree artists Andrea and Ansula Usai of Sardinia, a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea. Andrea Usai answered by email through a translator. He is the fifth generation filigree artist in his family. The couple use techniques unchanged for centuries to create intricate wearable art from gold, silver, precious gems and semi-precious gems.

The act of making filigree jewelry consists of tightly twisting wire to create a distinctive pattern. Sardinian women value traditional filigree; heirloom pieces are often passed from mother to daughter on their wedding day. The Usais create their jewelry using 18-karat gold and sterling silver.

Journal: Please tell me about your backgrounds as artists.

Andrea Usai: I have lived this art within the family since I was born. My Uncle Riccardo was just starting taking it seriously after having played jeweler in his father’s “bottega” for many years. For us having an artist in the house and seeing his creations was normal and part of our daily lives … nothing special, almost. I therefore decided to start working in “modern” jobs and as it is normal for Sardinians, I worked in tourism. When one day in 2009, sitting at a dinner table with Riccardo, I asked him how business was and for the very first time he said: “Bad!,” I understood that something was clearly wrong! I then asked what we could have done to help and he said to me: “If Ansula designs, you learn the filigree and find new markets … we will be able to survive!” Both Ansula and I felt the need to take action and go back to our roots.

Journal: How did you learn this gorgeous art? It looks so intricate to me, do you follow patterns or invent your own?

Usai: We learnt this art by playing with it initially and subsequently by recognizing the need to protect it. Ansula, who designs, looks at ancient jewelry, patterns, figures, costumes and traditions. She looks at the way the jewelry had been used to then adapt it to our modern world by using established patterns and by creating her own.

Journal: Why did you turn to artwork?

Usai: Part of this answer is given in the first answer, but ultimately it was due to the need to protect a four-generation family business that, like many others, could have died unless we do something to preserve it.

Journal: How did filigree come to Italy?

Usai: Filigree metalwork was brought to Sardinia by the Phoenicians 3,000 years ago when the Phoenicians dominated a large portion of the Mediterranean areas. They settled in Sardinia for about 400 years and they left techniques and traditions that quite clearly still affect our lives after 3,000 years. The similarities in the use of this technique are quite clear when looking at the areas where the Phoenicians have settled (Balkan areas, Italy, South of Spain, North Africa and so on.) For some reason, the Sardinian filigree is the thinnest out of all and we have been able to reach a level of intricacy that other regions have not adopted, perhaps simply due to the taste of the population in the different areas.

Journal: Do you need magnifiers to create this?

Usai: Sure, depending on the type of work, just three times and sometimes up to seven times.

Journal: Tell me the stories about the pieces you sent me (in photographs). Is there symbolism and/or stories involved?

Usai: Almost every piece in our collections has a meaning, the Fedele collection (round pendant at the top in the first photo) is associated with a wish for prosperity, the Fenicio collection (pendant, heart-shaped) is associated with our origins and the source of the filigree itself, the Tessuto collection (earrings) has a meaning of bonding and togetherness whilst the coral collection is linked to a meaning of inner strength and provenance.

Journal: Why did you leave your contemporary jobs and what were you doing?

Usai: To feel better about what we contribute to our families, to our communities and ultimately to the preservation of this craft. Despite the difficulties that we face and the financial challenges, we feel actually happier and satisfied.

Journal: Is this your first time at the Folk Art Market? What’s ahead for you?

Usai: It is our seventh time. Ahead of us is a very exigent clientele that understands what they want, who is a judge for quality and that keeps pushing us to surprise them every year with new designs in the respect of traditions. We also know that Santa Fe will have for us a very heartfelt welcome and a flattering support that we otherwise don’t receive anywhere else in the world.

A variety of jewelry by Sardinian artists Andrea and Ansula Usai. (Courtesy of The International Folk Art Market)

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