Castile and León, where artisan trades still survive
The Royal Glass Factory of La Granja is a draw for tourists and, increasingly, for young people interested in the technique of glassblowing. One of the dozens of artisanal crafts which are reaching new heights among new generations.
By: Luis Meyer
When he was a teenager, Diego Rodriguez wanted to be everything that teenagers dream of being when he grew up: astronaut, footballer, actor… He was never especially interested in glass, until he was 16, and, encouraged by his grandmother (and more to keep her happy than anything else), he answered an invitation to an event at the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja. Almost three decades later he is one of the few master glassblowers remaining in Europe, a trade that is going extinct due to the inevitable mechanisation of the production processes involving glass. ‘’I went to try it 27 years ago and was hooked: the moment you try glass blowing you fall in love for life’, recognises the artisan.
The Royal Glass Factory of La Granja (open to the public and one of the biggest tourist draws in the city of Segovia) is one of the few in the world which continues to use the purely artisanal method of glassblowing, unchanged since its doors opened in the 18th century, though the technique dates from much earlier. ‘Invented in the 1st century BC, the innovation brought about a revolution in the field of glass, since the blowing rod allowed artisans to craft larger pieces with finer walls and in record time. It was so important that even today the technique still prevails’, according to the factory.
‘There is now a strong interest in everything produced by artisans, made by hand, a return to the roots after years of industrialisation’
Diego is one of the few living examples, as one of the fewer than ten master glassblowers in Spain. This is a situation that could change. ‘There is a growing and unexpected interest in the technique among many young people, and that has a lot to do with Blown Away’, says the master craftsman from Castile and León, speaking about the Netflix reality show that features talented glassblowers. He knows what he’s talking about: ‘Years ago, I set up a rolling oven and I travelled Spain to spread my craft.
I do courses and performances, I play with glass and light so people can see the plasticity and beauty of the material, which is infinitely recyclable. And there are ever more young people at my events’.
Are we seeing a new batch of future maestros? ‘Maybe that generational change will come’, reflects Diego, ‘but to be a master glassblower, you have to spend at least 15 years as a glass blower, and discover that you have a gift for applying diverse techniques’, he explains, referring to those who taught him in his youth, artisans who came from all over the world to the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja to share their wisdom. Diego even drew from the techniques of the masters of Murano, irrefutable world icons of the trade. ‘What is certainly true is that there is now a strong interest in everything produced by artisans, made by hand, a return to the roots after years of industrialisation’, says the maestro, concluding ‘And that’s the hope, that traditional crafts such as glassblowing and many others can live on’.
Return to the authentic
The Mexican poet Abel Pérez Rojas recently said, speaking about artisan products: ‘It is not something made by hand, it is a piece of the maker’s heart’. This intricate relationship between artisan handicrafts and what defines us as individuals may help explain why the process that began with the Industrial Revolution and continued with the massive automation in which we currently live has not managed to extinguish trades that are centuries and even millennia old.
‘It is possible to live outside of cities and live from what you do with your hands’
Castile and León is a good example of this: the wide array of artisan crafts have deep roots in the region. The workshops of candles (such as the chandlers of Santa María del Tiétar, Ciudad Rodrigo, Segovia and Benavente), those of metal and forging (in Briviesca, Burgos and La Bañeza), of animal skins and leather (in Arenas de San Pedro, Soria and Valladolid), of basket making (in Ponferrada and Leon), and of wood carving (in Zamora and Las Quintanillas) are just a few examples of the endless variety of trades that abound in the region, including millinery and the manufacture of classical instruments, to mention two more of dozens. And all of them are in good shape: ‘in moments of crisis, there is always a resurgence in artisan crafts, as there is now’, was the conclusion of the experts who participated in a series of seminars entitled “The Professional Reality of Contemporary Artisan Handicrafts in Castile y León”. The seminars took place two years ago, but Diego reaffirms his even stronger endorsement of the statement: ‘The demand for artisan products from the Royal Glass Factory, from tableware for Michelin starred restaurants to lamps for hotels or private houses, hasn’t stopped growing’.
The biologist Nazareth Aparicio, from the town of Roa de Duero in Burgos, confirms this sentiment: ‘There is a clear return to the roots. I know many people who are launching very interesting projects in rural areas of Castile and León which are not necessarily agricultural in nature’. In some ways, she has done something similar: along with her husband, after studying in Madrid, she returned to her native town to create an organic fertiliser based on earthworm humus that does no harm to the environment. Her efforts paid off recently as her business, Vermiduero, was recognised in the Prizes of Excellence in Innovation for Rural Women from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing and Food.
‘We also began in an artisan way, doing tests in our garden with boxes of fruit and handful of worms’. She concludes: ‘It is possible to live outside of cities and live from what you do with your hands, in short, it is possible to live more happily, definitely’.