When visitors come to Francisco Zúñiga’s jade jewelry workshops, he always offers them the same simple advice: “When you work with jade, you must feel at peace and very happy.” From the joy Zúñiga expresses in his work, it’s clear he’s a man who lives by his words.
Zúñiga, whose long beard, glasses and warm smile recall everyone’s favorite grandfather, sculpts jadeite, the Guatemalan jade considered sacred by the Maya peoples. He conducts jade workshops in his home in San Juan del Obispo, just outside of Antigua, where he and his wife Odilia treat visitors like family. Instead of passively watching a demonstration, workshop participants get hands-on experience creating their own original designs, selecting a piece of jade, and performing virtually every step of transforming it into a unique piece of jewelry.
Zúñiga tells participants, “Do the work 50 percent with your hands and 50 percent with your heart. If you make the piece with love, it will be reflected in your piece and you will enjoy it for your whole life.”
It’s hard to imagine a better jade-sculpting teacher than Zúñiga. For 44 years, he’s worked with jade at every level—from searching for it in the mountains, cutting and hauling it back to Antigua, creating jewelry, and sharing his knowledge with others. He is featured in publications like the National Geographic Magazine (September 1987), and the book “Jades of Mesoamerica” by Fred Ward.
Zúñiga began working with soapstone and jasper in childhood, “but when I discovered jade, I found my passion,” he says. That passion soon drove him high into the mountains in the Alta Verapaz and Zacapa regions of Guatemala to search for raw jade where the ancient Maya first found it.
“I call the place ‘Close to God’ because there’s a divine peace in this mountain,” he says. “You don’t want to leave when you’re searching there … it’s beautiful.”
On countless excursions, Zúñiga and his three-man team spent days and nights searching the mountains for jadeite rock of the desired color. For wealthier clients, the team occasionally used helicopters to transport up to a ton of jade from the mountainside to trucks waiting below.
But they usually transported smaller rocks down the mountain on the backs of three donkeys or horses that each carried about 75 pounds. The men themselves sometimes carried additional, especially beautiful rocks down the mountain on planks supported on their shoulders, rather than try to cut it on the mountain.
“I’ve found some rocks that really make me think about God and creation. I immediately imagine how lovely the person will look wearing what I’ll make.”
But such beauty comes with challenges. Team members often slept beneath rocks as their only protection against rainy season storms and mudslides. They suffered from falls or other accidents and kept vigilant for snakes and other animals. “In the end, though, the animals aren’t the danger,” says Zúñiga. “The danger is in other places.”
That “other” danger often appears in human form. More than once during Guatemala’s civil war, military forces found and questioned the men, took their food and backpacks, and left them tied up in the mountains. More recently the danger has been cocaine and heroin traffickers who pass through the mountains on their way north. Although they have not harmed Zúñiga and his team, he knows of other innocent people who have been killed there.
Beyond any external threat, it is diabetes that has prevented Zúñiga from searching for jade recently. While he hopes to return to the mountain, the workshops keep him in touch with both the jade he crafts and the people who will wear it.
“I’m here so that people feel the jade, work with it, appreciate it, and we can share like a family. It’s not simply a matter of come, buy, and leave. I want to have the pleasure of talking to the people who come here, leave satisfied, and want to return to Guatemala and visit our home again. …It doesn’t give me a lot of money but it gives me peace and lots of happiness.”
You can learn more about Francisco Zúñiga and his jade jewelry workshops by calling (502) 7830-6476.
REVUE PROFILE – text/photos by Linda Conard