AMAMI: Weaving gold and centuries

Keeping traditional craftsmanship alive.
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In the summer frenzy of bold acetate earrings and competing hoops brought in by wholesalers of plastic and nickel, Christine and Danielle stand out in deep yellow gold accents. It's hard to make out what they're wearing—a delicate pair of earrings peeking through hair and a bracelet locked in with a pearl on the wrist. Their silhouettes and striking colour lends to the allure. Perhaps a closer look might tell the story of how they're made.

Long-time best friends Christine Tiu and Danielle Tan are the founders of AMAMI, a jewellery brand that features the archaic and delicate filigree technique. The Manila-based entrepreneurs have sought to preserve the endangered craft in the Northern Luzon region of the Philippines. With every keepsake collected, AMAMI's partner artisans are given a sustainable livelihood as they breathe new life to an old tradition.

How did AMAMI begin?

After joining a program in university that had required research on heritage crafts, AMAMI started as a passion project outside of school.

Honestly, we wanted to help the artisans whose stories touched us. After witnessing the beautiful tradition and learning that it was integral to our culture, we felt a sense of responsibility both to the local craftspeople and the lifespan of the art form.

With that said, AMAMI isn't set up like a traditional business; profit is not our end goal. Profit is the means to another end. Social enterprises have social missions. We're not just a brand that sells jewellery. AMAMI’s purpose is directed towards the people we collaborate with and the part of history we’re preserving.

Why did these artisans stand out to you?

Upon meeting the first artisans, they just so happened to be working on a necklace. We found out that in the past, they had gone nearly two to three years without receiving a single order. With their workstations likely going into storage to gather dust again after this one piece, it was clear that the trade was dying in this province and in other parts of the country.

One of them was about to move abroad with his family in search of a blue-collar job. Feeling a sense of urgency to convince him to stay, we began selling pieces to our family and friends on social media, who eventually became our first customers. We're very grateful for their support and AMAMI wouldn't be where it is today without them. After securing enough orders to provide livelihood for a few months, we thought of making this a long-term initiative rather than just a one-off attempt to help.

What’s the history of the craft?

Filigree is an indigenous technique that had existed in the Philippines long before the Spaniards occupation. See our AMAMI tambourine necklaces that come with a relikaryo, the pendant. The relikaryo once typically contained images of religious figures, relics, or crosses. When the Spaniards arrived and witnessed the natives’ rich jewellery traditions, they took this as an opportunity to help spread Christianity and convert the country. The beads of the necklaces even followed a particular sequences just like a rosary.

Why are these artisans one of the last practitioners of the craft?

Today, it's a dying trade due to several factors such as the influx of machine-made and thus cheaper jewellery and the introduction of foreign-made jewellery.

A dwindling number of artisans have since been forced to look for jobs in different industries as well as overseas. The artisans behind the craft are fathers, brothers, sons, daughters, mothers, and wives. Some have turned to carpentry just to barely make ends meet.

A lack of awareness and appreciation among the general public about the existence and beauty of the tradition contributed to the decrease in demand. The craftspeople themselves started undervaluing their own work and sometimes sold their products at a loss without even realising it.

We saw inter-connected yet multi-layered problems. Given our entrepreneurial background, we saw the opportunity to help. Thus, AMAMI was born out of a desire to revive this Filipino jewellery tradition and to empower local artisans with sustainable livelihoods. It was going to be a win-win situation.

Why the name AMAMI?

After months of brainstorming, we decided on a name that best represented our story while remaining uniquely Filipino. One night we thought, "why not name it after one of our tambourines, called the amami bead?"

The intricate amami tambourine is a nod to both the craft and the country's deep Catholic roots. Amami stands for "Ama Namin," the Filipino translation of the Our Father prayer. The bead got its name from the rosary-inspired necklaces women used to wear during the style’s centuries-old heyday. We knew then we had found the perfect name.

Can you give us a walk-through of the process involved?

The process combines age-old techniques and contemporary style. Using the same tools that had been passed down from their forefathers, our partner artisans meticulously handcraft each labour of love. The jewellery then possesses an intrinsic value that cannot be replicated.

To give a gist of the technical process: silver or gold nuggets are melted in a repetitive process of heating and flattening until they turn into very fine wires. After which, they are moulded and shaped according to the design. This process is referred to as filigree. As a decorative element, tiny globules of gold beads are then created to make up the floral design, which is referred to as rositas. This is the granulation process. With all materials sourced locally, our items are made of 99.9% silver dipped in 24K gold. Each AMAMI creation takes no less than a day to make, while other pieces can take a full month to complete.

Where do the artisans get inspiration for the jewellery designs? And how have these evolved since previous generations?

Artisans often find inspiration from their surroundings and nature. It's interesting because locals in recent decades had perceived this style as "baduy," the colloquial term for uncool and off-fashion.

Many associated the intimidatingly large pieces as something only their grandmothers could wear. There was a time only the elite could afford to collect the tambourine jewellery, contributing to its decline in popularity.

In the past, tambourine jewellery only came in the form of necklaces. At AMAMI, we aspired to take the skill of our partner artisans, their traditional patterns, and infuse contemporary thinking to make them more wearable. We began experimenting with several designs, branching into rings, bracelets, and earrings. We wanted our designs to be versatile and to cater to a larger audience. We didn’t want the pieces to be reserved as costume jewellery, limiting them to formal occasions.

Who has AMAMI has attracted so far? What's the feedback you often receive?

So far we've had a mix of customers, ranging from jewellery enthusiasts to Filipino diaspora who wish to bring a piece of home and reconnect with their identities. We’ve had the support of socially and ecologically conscious consumers, foreigners, young professionals, and even students. We’ve also made custom keepsakes.

Apart from building an online presence, joining occasional pop-up bazaars has given us a chance to interact with advocates that share a similar passion. Sometimes we encounter people that pay us kind words of affirmation to continue our work, while some have given us helpful advice.

Some have shared how the jewellery evokes nostalgia recalling their mothers and grandmothers wearing pieces similar to our designs.

How have the lives of AMAMI's partner artisans changed since beginning this enterprise?

It's bold to say that we've changed their lives but we celebrate our little victories especially when it comes to impact. Since we've started, we now work with a total of 15 artisans, which include stay-at-home mothers and youth who previously did not show any interest to pursue the trade or inherit the skill.

Many of them expressed how they were able to use their income to pay for their children's education, home utilities, and daily expenses. One was able to pay for his child's tuition fee independently for the first time. Another no longer had to wait for her husband to send money from abroad. We're particularly proud of supporting a partner artisan in the construction of a roof for his home last October. Long left unfinished due to a lack of funds, risks of electrocution from water seeping through his home ran through the rainy seasons. We're happy that AMAMI has brought a family closer to safer living conditions.

It might seem intangible but we've noticed that our partner artisans have become more confident in what they do too; they've started to value their work again. They tell us excitedly when they have a new design in mind and they call their families overseas to discuss who to name another piece after. When they see their pieces featured on TV they proudly exclaim, "I made that!" This is a far cry from when we first met them and they had gotten so used to hearing about the futility of the craft.

These changes in disposition keep us going despite the challenges faced when starting a small enterprise. We feel fortunate that AMAMI has become a platform to provide livelihood, celebrate heritage, and push for advocacies such as sustainability and women empowerment. Getting to work with your best friend and a welcoming community makes the work feel less like work and ultimately worthwhile.

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