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Blog posts tagged with 'artisans'

Tres Estrellas: A Story of Transformation

One of the most beautiful things about fair trade is the way it transforms things. It transforms people who have oppression into people who have opportunity. It transforms beggars into businessmen. It transforms kids on the street into kids in the classroom. And sometimes, with a little creativity, it turns trash into treasure.

Take the humble guitar string. People have been playing guitars (or guitar-like instruments) for over three thousand years, and steel strings have been in use since around 1900. If you’ve ever played a guitar, you know how frequently the strings break or have to be replaced, but have you ever thought about what happens to those strings when they are discarded? Are they recycled, do they end up in a landfill, or what? One Unique Batik artisan group is transforming recycled guitar strings into fun bracelets, bangles, and rings, and in the process, they are creating not just jewelry, but jobs.

Tres Estrellas, located in the Canton Pujujil region on the edge of Lake Atitlán, was founded in 1995 in response to the dire poverty of the people in the region. Or, as co-founder, Juan Par, put it, “so that people would not die of hunger.” The Guatemalan Civil War, which began in 1960, plagued the country for more than thirty years. The Maya people were particularly targeted by government death squads, forced disappearances, and a scorched earth policy. After decades of war and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, it is no surprise that rebuilding has been a long and arduous process.

Many Maya women were left widowed by the war, desperate to find ways to feed and care for their families. Today, most of the young women in the Tres Estrellas artisan group are children of widows. The group is made up of thirteen women, ages 22 - 45 years old. When there is not enough work making jewelry, the women supplement their income making traditional baskets, but because there is so much competition in the basket market, their income from selling baskets is about half of what they can earn making jewelry with the group. Group leader Juan and his wife, Maria, design and develop the products and provide training and technical assistance to the other group members. Juan has been a hard worker since he was a child working in the coffee and cotton fields with his father, and is grateful that this employment has allowed him to provide for his family and educate his eight children.


The biggest challenge for the group is to create enough work for the artisans, who are still struggling to rebuild their lives and their community in the aftermath of such a long and brutal war. With each unique guitar ring and bracelet that they make, they get a little closer to that long awaited dream. We hope that you will love our Unique Batik guitar jewelry not only because it is funky and cool and old-into-new, but because you want to be a part of transforming struggle into success. Together, we can do it - one string at a time.

Las Mujeres de Panabaj: Working Together to Rebuild

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For indigenous women in the villages on the banks of beautiful Lake Atitlan, life is not always as picturesque as their placid surroundings. Although many of the villages in the Lake Atitlan region are renowned for their form of handicrafts, or artesania, earning a sustainable, living wage through sales of these handicrafts -- no matter how unique or well-made -- presents many challenges. The thousands of tourists who visit the region each year don't make it to every small village, and even if they did, competition for craft sales is fierce. It takes more than crafting skills to be a successful artisan. For the artisan group Mujeres Panabaj, working together as a cooperative instead of trying to make it as individual artisans has been the key to success.


Founded in 1996, Mujeres Panabaj, is a cooperative of women artisans in Santiagotwo Atitlan. The group started out as “Arte Indigena T’zutujil”, a name reflective of the T’zutujil Maya people who founded their village of Panabaj and that of nearby Tzanchaj, and whose culture and language are prevalent even today. The group has faced a long and sometimes arduous road to their current success. One of the most tragic times they faced was in October, 2005 when a mudslide triggered by the heavy rains from Hurricane Stan struck, leaving an estimated 600 of the 3,000 villagers dead or missing, and those who escaped with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Many of the artisan group lost their husbands, children, and houses.


threeAt the time, it seemed uncertain whether Panabaj would even be rebuilt. Many people were relocated to government housing in settlement further east, but despite the efforts of the government, the call of their ancestral home brought back most of the villagers to rebuild. Now the town looks much as it did before the catastrophe, although those who survived will never forget those they lost. In honor of their village, the group became ‘Las Mujeres de Panabaj’. Donations from Unique Batik and others provided the women with looms and materials to start working again, and a grant from another organization provided them with money to rebuild their workshop and store.


Today, Las Mujeres de Panabaj provides a regular, viable income for the twenty members, ages 25 - 40. The fourmembers only earn money through their artesania, and the group is run very democratically, with a legal board of directors that changes every two years. Their weaving and jewelry making allow the women who, as T’zutujil Maya, speak little to no Spanish, to support their families despite this disadvantage in the Guatemalan business world. The women can earn approximately $6.50 a day, which in the local economy is a fair price for their work. Artisans are paid promptly, every fifteen days. The group also helps those who want to pursue furthering their education; a few women have received scholarships to go to high school. The group is not limited to its original members, but accepts and trains new members, who are taught the beading and weaving techniques, making jewelry and products woven on a flat loom, such as belts.

Unique Batik purchases woven belts, geo and animal wallets, and Christmas ornaments from Las Mujeres de Panabaj. We are proud to bring their meticulously crafted and vibrant artesania to our customers in the U.S. When you buy these items, you are ensuring that the strong women of Panabaj are not only surviving their challenges, but thriving in the face of adversity.

guitar strap


Guatemala’s Beautiful Lake Atitlan, Part 2

Lake Atitlan

Picturesque volcanic Lake Atitlan is home to many Unique Batik artisans. This mountainous region is rich with Maya cultural traditions and handicrafts and has more to offer visitors than just its promise of beautiful vistas and eternally spring-like weather. The small villages that surround this huge body of water, formed in a caldera millions of years ago, are as captivating as anything the scenery can boast.

San Juan

San Juan la Laguna, located on the western shore of Lake Atitlan, is a quiet, clean village of about 8,000 residents.  Off the beaten (tourist) path, its resulting relaxed atmosphere allows visitors to get away from the bustle of the city and experience the genuine friendliness of the indigenous Guatemalan people. This charming village is renowned for its painting, and boasts talented oil painters and several street murals. There is also a women’s coop of weavers who use only hand-gathered natural dyes, keeping centuries-old traditions alive.

Ana

Across the lake, on the eastern shore is San Antonio Palopo, one of the oldest lake settlements and well known for its handmade majolica style pottery. Historically, each village has had its own distinguishing style of dress, or traje, and that of San Antonio Palopo features striped tops for both men and women. In this traditional village, it is not unusual to see people wearing this style of clothing even today. San Antonio Palopo also offers terrific views of the lake -- one can enjoy the vista as well as a completely unique view by hiking to the top of the village and the ancient terraced onion fields found there.

San Juan Spinners

The village of Santa Clara la Laguna offers a completely different experience; located high in the mountains among miles of coffee plantations and forest, it is home to the famous Rosto de la Maya overlook. Seen from below, Rosto de la Maya or ‘Face of the Maya’ looks like a face in profile; from the overlook itself one can see the entire lake, and on a clear day, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In Santa Clara la Laguna, making baskets is part of the traditional culture of the town because the baskets were historically used during the coffee harvest. Now, basket weaving also brings in income from craft sales, and there is a cooperative specializing in different styles of cane baskets for export.

San Antonio Pottery

The craft traditionse Lake Atitlan region are directly tied to history both ancient and modern. Whether artisans create because it is an integral part of their culture that must be passed down from generation to generation, or whether their skills were imported along with the many expatriates who are drawn to this enchanting region, the value of handcrafting is embraced and celebrated. Clareños make baskets and San Antonio Palopo is the place to find pottery. Each village around Lake Atitlan is unique, seeped in its own special Maya language, dress, and traditions. It could take a lifetime to explore them all, and it would be a lifetime well spent.

Artisan Spotlight: Diego Ravinal

Everything old is new again, right? At its best, fashion takes classics that have been around for ages, and spins them into something new right before our eyes. Oscar de la Renta, Rachel Roy, Nicole Miller, and several other designers showed pearls for Spring 2014, but these weren’t your granny’s pearls. While pearls have an elegant, classic aesthetic, they take on a cool, young edge when mixed with more casual pieces.


At Unique Batik, we are always looking for ways to translate fun fresh trends into our handcrafted jewelry and bags, so we’re pleased to bring you the Pearl Circus Necklace and Pearl Circus 2 Strand as a great way to incorporate the pearl micro trend into your spring and summer wardrobe. These subtly dramatic pearl necklaces are created for us by the same family of artisans that makes our delightful Circus collection of jewelry, as well as our Rock Candy and Trapeze collections.

Pearl Circus


Led by artisan Diego Ravinal and based in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, the group is made up of Diego, his four sisters, and his brother-in-law. When their father died thirteen years ago, Diego had to abandon his education, leaving school to work and support the family. Diego was able to get a bank loan of Q3500 (the equivalent of $450) and set up a stall on one of the main streets in town, near the beach. There, he sold jewelry and other trinkets to tourists, as the town in which he lives is on a beautiful volcanic lake and is a popular vacation spot. Although doing business this way was enough to get by, Diego was unable to grow his business until he could find a wholesale buyer.

DiegoLake Atitlan

When Diego connected with Sharon and started making jewelry for Unique Batik, he was able to generate enough work for all four of his sisters. Diego’s family has not had the opportunity for much education -- both his mother and three of his sisters are illiterate and not all of them are able to speak Spanish fluently. This means that income generating opportunities are few and far between. Their work making jewelry allows them to contribute to the prosperity of the family, and gives them a voice in decision making. When making decisions about pay and production, the group dialogues and decides together.

ChonaElanaMariaDiego's Kids

Diego is proud of his work; he has created his own designs, and when people come to his stall and admire his jewelry, saying it is unique, it gives him energy to continue creating. He has also continued his education, going to school in the afternoons, and is only one class away from completing his studies and getting his diploma. In the six years of working together with his family he has built a successful business and now dreams of growing that business and building his own home in Santiago. Sure, it’s the same dream that people have had for generations...but some things never go out of style.




Unique Batik and Fair Trade: The “Fair” in Fair Trade

Continuing our exploration of the ten principles of Fair Trade as outlined by one of the leading bodies in the fair trade world, the World Fair Trade Organization, let’s look at what it means to pay a fair price. The idea that producers receive a fair price for their goods is the most basic idea of the fair trade movement. It’s also the one most familiar to consumers. If you ask someone what “fair trade” means, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Some people equate “fair trade” with “fair wage” (although there’s a lot more to it than that).


It doesn’t really seem necessary to explain why, if we call ourselves fair traders, we should be paying artisans a fair price. Even small children understand the concept of fairness. Maybe some of them understand it better than a lot of America’s large corporations. Instead of talking about why it’s important to pay a fair price -- which seems pretty obvious -- let’s talk about what makes a price fair. Who determines what’s fair? How do they decide how much is enough?


First of all, who determines a fair price? The answer is that the price is determined by both the producer and the buyer. We dialogue together to determine what price is appropriate for each product that is being made. If that seems unlikely to work because the goals of the two parties are mutually exclusive, consider this -- as fair traders, we want to provide a living wage to artisans. It’s one of the reasons we’re in business. But both the artisans and we at Unique Batik want that income to be sustainable, so the price that we pay them has to translate to a retail price that consumers are willing to pay us. In our mission to provide sustainable income to the artisans with whom we work, we must work together to find that fine line.


So, how do we determine what constitutes a living wage? There are a lot of factors that affect the answer to that, including where the artisans are working, the cost of materials, and how long they will work on the product. The cost of living in their local economy is relevant, as we are buying from artisans living in different countries, where the cost of living may vary. Producers know that we pay a fair price as we are familiar with the cost of living in the area and what local wages are.


The important thing is that wherever they are living, artisans earn enough to pay for the basic necessities of life. They should be able to provide shelter, food, and clean water to their families; they should be able to educate their children, and have access to medical care.


As any small child could tell you, we’re supposed to treat others the way we want to be treated. When you look at it that way, it’s fairly simple.