Way back in December, Oksana and I spent some time in Baños de Agua Santa, in Ecuador. We had just finished up a tour of the Galapagos Islands where we’d gone way over-budget, so we were looking to slow down and save some money for awhile. Baños was the perfect place for that.
Our friend, Jeff, who’d toured the Galapagos with us, stuck around long enough to take a jungle tour with us, but he was influential in our Baños stay in another way. While in Quito, he had been trying to assemble a custom chess set made out of carved tagua nuts. When we arrived in Baños, he stumbled upon a little shop called “Tagua de Wilson.”
While trying to fill in the gaps for his chess set, we got to talking with the eponymous owner. Jeff asked if he did custom work, then asked how much a full chess set would cost. $60 USD, but there was a catch. It was Christmas season and Wilson was busy carving ornaments, nativity scenes, and the like. It would take him up to two weeks to carve a full set. Oksana and I offered to stay in Baños so that we could FedEx it back to Jeff, in Alaska, when it was completed.
Originally, I thought this video would be the story of how Wilson carved the chess set for Jeff, but while Wilson was happy to talk about his work, he wanted to keep the carving of the figurines a secret. The theme changed a little in editing, but I’m happy with the way it turned out.
A note on the subtitles: Every conversation with Wilson was necessarily in Spanish. Not only did that make it difficult for me during the interview sessions we had, but it made editing pretty tough, too. If you’re bilingual, you’ll notice the translations are not exact. I tried to stay as close as I could to the words he used, but most of the time I translated in service to the story, rather than to the language. (I probably should have run the final subtitles by a native Spanish-speaking friend, but oh well. I’m a long way from fluent, but I’m still proud that I was able to do as well as I did!)
And finally, I want to mention how much Oksana helped on this video. You’ll see me talking with Wilson in most every shot and that’s because Oksana was there to help with the cameras. A lot of her work has appeared in previous podcast episodes, but this is the first one where she did the bulk of the shooting. Way to go, Oksana!
The following is a transcript of the above video for Google’s benefit (ignore it, watch the video instead!)
Episode 13 – Tagua de Wilson
Exclusividades en Tagua
This is a family tradition.
Before… we made buttons, teacups for kids… But after plastic arrived, it all ended.
Now, with the new “environmental consciousness” and all things natural, because of all that, now we have this again.
And approximately… How long? Twenty years in this store.
Before that, we had a store closer to the church.
Inside this seed is a fruit. When it’s soft, you can eat it and when it’s dry, after approximately six months, it’s like this. You can remove the shell so that you can work with it.
With this, you can make everything from buttons… buttons, round pieces… anything with a circular shape.
All over Ecuador, there’s a ton of tagua, but not with this same quality. If you’ve visited other stores, yes, they have tagua, but it’s not of this caliber.
What about in Colombia?
Yes, they also have tagua in Colombia… They do good work there, too.
This is very simple and it’s because of that you don’t work with other people because they’ll copy your work and then they’ll end up competing against you with the copies!
This is very, very strong. And… the tools? I made them myself. It’s very hard.
The shine is natural… all you need to do is polish it.
[They used to] export tagua to Germany, to Italy… Where they would make buttons. They would paint them, and export them all over the world. When plastics appeared on the scene, that was it.
And how long ago was that? 100 years…?
No, no. The plastic… 50 years!
50 years, more or less. After the…
The Second World War.
That’s when plastic exploded.
And now, again, nothing in tagua contaminates the environment. Every part of the process is all natural.
And it’s a lot better than ivory!
Yes, of course, from the elephants.
These buttons are for you.
Now, for this next bit, you cut it… I have a special machine for cutting, but you can’t film that! It’s… Top Secret!
Anyway, after you cut the tagua, you polish it. You polish it with this thing here, by hand, until it shines.
I’ll show you a bit of the carving process. You can make figurines… you can make little animals.
Those little animals – they’re…?
Without this machine?
No, no, no… That is only for round things.
Now we’re going to do something quick so you can see how it’s done, okay? This comes from lots of experience.
After you polish it and polish it, you get something like this. That’s for you!
Now, it’s the same process to make the figurines. From the seed, you carve and carve, and at the end, you polish it, and then you paint in the details.
Here, I need to retouch this figurine a little bit… One of the little animals…
Look: Check out the nut now…
I like this one a lot!
For example, this one here? Now we’re using tagua, and a cow’s horn. This is tagua, too, but tagua that has been burned a little. This takes a lot of time to put in the details, and later to get it to shine…
We hope you had a good time and that you’ll always visit us here whenever you’re in Baños!
(Voiceover by Jeff Jemison)
I wanted to bring home a chess set from Ecuador, and we found a little shop in Baños where I could choose all the pieces and have them hand-carved from tagua nuts.
Arlo, Oksana, and I had been searching all sorts of other shops and I had already bought several individual pieces, but when Wilson told us he could create a customized, carved set, with every piece to my choosing, that’s when the biggest challenge began.
I wanted the set to be based on Galapagos birds, reptiles, and marine life, so I made a list of all the chess positions and matched them to a specific creature. I looked through all sorts of options and decided on a theme of marine versus land and air. The front line of pawns would be sea turtles against either tortoises or owls, and the backfields would be composed of sharks, dolphins, sea horses, and marine iguanas, against a backfield of frigate birds, owls, albatross and hawks. By the time I got all the pieces back to the US, I had enough to create two whole chess sets with a few spare pieces left over as souvenirs.
The pieces are amazingly beautiful and the process has been as challenging as playing the game itself.
Now it’s time for some chess!
Tagua de Wilson
Postcard Valet: Episode 13
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