Saving a traditional art by going modern

PURSUING a research project for university made a student strike gold — literally.

Paolo Palanca, founder of Kaya Mana PH, found a maker of traditional Filipino tambourine jewelry during a research trip to Ilocos Sur, and has since parlayed that into a business. More than an enterprise, it has become a two-man mission (that’s Mr. Palanca and his platero, Mang Nelson*) to save a part of cultural heritage, improve a dying industry, and improve Mang Nelson’s life.

We chanced upon Mr. Palanca at his stall at the Likhang Habi Fair in Glorietta, which ran from Oct. 14 to 16. Sitting at his booth, we watched several customers, both young and old, ask about the jewelry.

Tambourine jewelry is a hybrid art of pre-colonial Filipino skills in crafting gold, as well as Spanish influences. Many samples of tambourine jewelry from the Spanish colonial period are religious artifacts, such as reliquaries and rosaries.

Mr. Palanca explained why the demand for traditional jewelry fell by the wayside, starting from the 1980s. “The price of gold increased a lot over that period,” he said, with Mang Nelson saying that when he was a boy, gold could be had for P50 per gram, while it now sits at P3,300 per gram, and the price is still increasing. Another reason was the presence of counterfeit tambourine jewelry (liked as it was by collectors and costumers), which scared off customers from artisans. Finally, it just faded from fashion, what with the presence of easily manufactured jewelry from around the world; as well as changing tastes.

STARSTRUCKWhy then did Mr. Palanca decide to invest in an industry that was already dying? At the time Mr. Palanca and Mang Nelson met in 2017, Mr. Palanca had been working under the assumption that the jeweler was the last one in the Philippines (it turns out that there were more traditional jewelers around the country, but the number is still small). During that research trip, Mr. Palanca and his groupmates were shown several pieces by Mang Nelson, things that he couldn’t sell.

“Unang kita pa lang, starstruck na kami (We were starstruck at first sight),” said Mr. Palanca. “We found it so impressive that not only did he make this by hand, but the details were so fine.”

“It didn’t make sense that he was having a hard time, struggling to provide for his family, when the things he was making were so beautiful.”

Prior to their partnership, Mang Nelson had been ready to pack up his things and follow his wife to be an Overseas Filipino Worker in Canada, and with him, the heritage and skill involved in making filigree jewelry would have gone away as well. Mr. Palanca and his groupmates took the pieces and sold them to friends and family, while leaving Mang Nelson with some start-up funds to create more pieces. With the proceeds of the initial sale, they reinvested it back into the business, and Kaya Mana was born.

POWER OF INHERITANCEMr. Palanca talked about the name. At first, they picked “mana” (a Filipino word for “inheritance”) to reflect the letters in Mang Nelson’s name, as well as recalling ideas of heritage. They added “kaya” (a word associated with “ability”) to differentiate themselves from other businesses, but also to add depth to their name. Of course, combining the two words would result in something close to “kayamanan” (wealth, or treasure), but, “We wanted to be close enough to it, but more than it. It’s not just kayamanan, it’s ‘kaya mana’: the power of our inheritance.”

Tambourine jewelry is made by flattening gold into sheets and turning those sheets into fine wires that can be woven together. In the process of helping Mang Nelson, they’ve also modernized some equipment to make the process faster, as well as making it safer. Some of the designs have been slightly modernized to appeal to a younger audience. Think former rosary beads turned into charms, or earrings, or bracelets. Instead of the traditional 18-karat gold, some pieces are made of gold-plated silver (vermeil). A stunning necklace was being sold for P50,000; but there were bracelets available at P7,500.

With adaptation comes the question of authenticity. Mr. Palanca answers with an insight from Mang Nelson: “The purpose of it is still there. Even if you’re changing some parts, it’s still filigree tambourine jewelry.”

It also comes with the realization that some things are really better when made by hand. “Your hands are better than the machines. You can make pieces that are more finely detailed, more intricate, than any machine could do,” he pointed out.

MAKING A LIVING“One of the reasons why we want people to come back and do it is (for people to know) that you can make money, you can survive off of being an artisan,” he said. “We want to make it enticing to people.”

According to Mr. Palanca, the minimum wage in Ilocos Sur, where Mang Nelson lives and works, is about P200; a sum they have increased so Mang Nelson could continue making jewelry. In the first year since Kaya Mana’s founding in 2017, Mang Nelson was able to fund for his wife’s first vacation from Canada, which they spent in Baguio.

“The whole point is to get them back to the level where they were before the decline,” said Mr. Palanca. “Eventually, they can be independent again.”

In Aja Raden’s book Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes The World, she writes: “The very purpose and nature of jewels is one and the same: to transfix and reflect. Just like their glittering surfaces, jewels have one, and only one power: they reflect our desires back to us and show us who we are.”

“As Filipinos, this is something we didn’t know we could be proud of,” said Mr. Palanca. “It’s something that we are very grateful to discover.”

“It’s sad that we had to discover it,” he said. “We wish that we were taught about it in school.”

Kaya Mana is available at the Frankie General Stores in Rockwell and SM Aura, as well as through their Instagram, — Joseph L. Garcia

*For security reasons, BusinessWorld was asked not to use Mang Nelson’s full name.