R.F. collects unique pieces of South American silver.
Here we see a pair of ceremonial ladies silver stirrups, very tiny, and a solid sterling cuff bracelet at 4.5 inches tall.
Let’s start with the cuff, which is a “storytelling” bracelet, popular in the 1940s and often telling tales of the indigenous past, relating to ancient history of civilizations like the Inca, Maya and also stories of 19th-century colonial presence in South and Central America.
These were mainly tourist collected pieces, not made by particular jewelers, but oftentimes made of solid sterling. A lesser quality metal was also used, with not as much silver content.
The best of these are “statement” pieces, not wearable daily!
This piece is likely Peruvian, and the visual language, because it tells a story, leads from left to right.
On the left foreground is a streetlamp, ornately hanging from a bracket, under which a man drives a horse-drawn buggy. The horse is a trained Prancer (the front leg is raised gracefully).
A woman in a 19th-century South American full-length flounced skirt, accented by an indigenous apron, stands in the center, shrouded by a Spanish style shawl covering head and shoulders.
The courtyard beneath is paved, adding to the perspective of the engraved and repousse design. She is standing upon the forecourt of a Spanish Colonial church. In the background we see the church with its two bell towers (campanarios), and a cross marking the ornate entry doors, the tall sanctuary is flanked by the lower roofed nave structure that finishes the composition, and the tale the piece is telling.
What story IS this piece telling?
Colonialism, for one (although there may be a romance involved between the horseman and the lady): the Spanish Government in the 18th and 19th centuries established missions located adjacent to establish indigenous settlements to supply the church, the “Spiritual Center” of the mission, with labor and maintenance power, while at the same time “converting” the locals to Christianity.
The church we see is in the style we know here in Santa Barbara: a combination of Gothic, Baroque and Classical architectural elements. Although historians today rethink the philosophy of the missions, in the 1940s they were considered romantic — the aura of Spanish Romance mixed with local flavor.
The bracelet is popular today as a “Frida” inspired piece, as Frida Kahlo wore massive pieces like this in indigenous styles. And since this is heavy, and pure sterling, the value of the piece is $750.00.
The tiny stirrups (estribos) are delightful, made for a noblewoman with fashionable tiny feet in 1880-1890, in Argentina. These were not meant for heavy riding, but for show.
Other Spanish Colonial forms of estribos are more massive, and larger shoe-form, often with the toes in an unique Asian inspired curl. Why?
The history of the stirrup is based in Asia.
Chinese stirrups spread into Europe in the first few centuries A.D. through nomadic tribes of Central Eurasia. In fact, the Chinese Jin Dynasty “paired” stirrups were popular with European nobility in the Medieval period.
How do we know that European stirrups were based on a Chinese form? Chinese noblemen, horsemen and soldiers were buried with their prized paired stirrups, the earliest found in a Chinese tomb dating to 415 A.D., and imaged in funerary terracotta figures of mounted noblemen, clearly showing his stirrups, from 302 A.D.
We compare those forms from China with drawings and murals in medieval Europe of mounted warriors and processions of mounted equipage, for example, an illustration from 867 A.D. of Byzantine Emperor Basil I, , who is mounted with Asian-inspired stirrups.
Metal stirrups continue this design feature of the shoe-stirrup with the slight curl to the toe in Spanish Colonial brass and silver stirrups, also seen in wood forms, and the brass flatter toed shoe-stirrups from Europe and England, into the 19th century.
India had a similar curled toe shoe-stirrup dating as far back as 2 B.C.E.
In fact, stirrups may be considered one of the most influential tools of civilization, “helping along” the spread of cultures, along with equally important tools such as the wheel, and the printing press.
‘Why? Well, without the stirrup, a rider has little control of the horse, making the horse and stirrup influential in the spread of populations, communication and the art of war for millennia. So says historian Zaheer Baber in his 1996 book, “The Science of Empire: Scientific Knowledge, Civilization and Colonial Rule.”
The value of the tiny little Argentine, late 19th-century stirrups is $300.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.