“Muchachas” (“Girls”), begins the deep raspy voice of the stout old man. Leaning intensely on his gold-topped cane, he scrutinizes the rolls of bills in his ring-laden hand. Prompted by the question of where he bought his chains, he is giving a friend and I a long-winded speech about jewelry-buying, to the point where I regret having asked at all.
The mobster look-alike tells us that buying real gold is not a good idea because people love to rip off tourists. While he talks, I stare at his neck, mesmerized by the stacks of shiny golden chains with fat pendants making dents in his dark, ample chest hair.
Walking the streets of Trinidad one immediately notices the colors. The electric blues, pinks and greens of the houses create a rainbow backdrop to the vibrancy of daily local activity. The bright hues of the houses however, may meet their match in the art that hangs on the necks of the Cubans. Trinidad locals can be seen rocking their jewelry ubiquitously, chatting in doorframes, walking down the street, or relaxing in the park.
To achieve the Cuban look of being “iced out” (decked out in jewelry) without breaking the bank or being ripped off, I recommend saving gold purchases for later and adopting the local trend of wearing gold-painted “acero” (literally “iron”), a cheap gold alternative.
A young woman named Ana is working the little stall when I enter one of many private jewelry shops run out of houses in Trinidad. Without a name, it boasts one table with acero chains, rings, bracelets and earrings. “It’s the locals that shop here” she tells me, “It’s in style right now, sometimes men but mostly women, because we are a little vainer”.
The cheap prices that start at around 5CUC (or around $5) for a bracelet, or 12CUC for a large chain are an attractive bonus of the flashy acero route of adorning oneself.
“We like to be in fashion” declares a young Cuban named Alex. His son, Alexander Jr, smiles shyly at me. “It also has to do with the ambience here.” He explains to me, “Cubans like to wear lots of colors. We like exaggerative clothing, exaggerative jewelry, exaggerative everything”.
For visitors to Trinidad who perhaps prefer different, or higher quality jewelry, Obeín Licor Zayas is the man to see. When I first enter his shop, he is bent over a crowded work bench covered in metal odds and ends. The walls of the cozy store showcase his craftsmanship in glass cabinets, where the jewelry sparkles and demands attention.
As a child, Licor Zayas attended an art-focused middle school that eventually led him to choose architecture as a career path. After practicing for a few years, he and a sculptor friend decided to try their luck at jewelry making to meet the increasing demand from tourists in Cuba.
Licor Zayas tells me that finding sufficient materials for his creations is difficult. “There is no market here, some people sell materials from other places, and on occasion the state will sell goods, but generally it is hard to find raw materials.”
Necessity, instead of hindering has only managed to fuel Licor Zayas’ personal creativity. “We recycle a lot”, he says as he shows me the pendants he is making from old coins. Unique and artistic design, and limited yet high-quality material, make for one-of-a kind pieces of jewelry.
Marketed to tourists who tend to be able to afford the nice pieces, Licor Zayas’ work ranges from 15CUC for silver earrings, to 80CUC for the fanciest necklace on the shelf.
The artist smiles after we are interrupted by customers who leave happy with new silver chains and earrings, “everything that I sell here I try to make unique, from the process of design to small production, that’s what I have been trying to do here for the last ten years.”
Undoubtedly the jewelry creations within Licor Zayas’ store are reflective of the unparalleled spirit and beauty that many people encounter in Trinidad. The showy acero seen around town also has a place in representing the vibrancy and resourcefulness of Cuban culture. Whichever route you choose to “ice up”, you are sure to have a little bit of Trinidad and Cuba with you always.
Address: Francisco Javier Zerquera(Rosario) 407 between Rubén M. Villena (Real) and Ernesto Valdés Muños (Media Luna), Trinidad, S.S Cuba, CP 62 600
Cel: (01)5 248 9761