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Oporto's Street of Gold

September 14, 1986|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

OPORTO, Portugal — The butterfly in the window of Eduardo Carneiro and Co. at 225 Rua das Flores is prominently displayed. The sun glints off its delicate wings, reflected not by satiny iridescent color, but by gold.

The butterfly's intricate wing pattern is not the creation of nature but of a Portuguese artisan's skill at winding, twisting, curling and braiding fine golden wires into symmetrical wings.

This is the art of filigree, a technique of working gold and silver that dates from about 3000 BC, and was introduced into Portugal during the Middle Ages by the Moors. Artisans work for hours on each delicate piece. In addition to the popular butterflies they shape leaves, hearts and flowers for pins and pendants, hoop earrings and bracelets, and larger items, including model ships, miniature furniture and picture frames.

The work demands skill and patience. It requires the careful bending, twisting, and curling of tiny gold or silver wires into complex patterns and soldering these with gold or silver and borax. The meticulously developed curlicues are held in place by a frame of heavier wire.

Filigree is sold in Lisbon and throughout Portugal, but most of it is made in the north in the wonderful old city of Oporto, Portugal's second largest city, and in the nearby town of Gondomar. Filigree techniques are handed down from generation to generation and, although the art is said to have reached its height during the 18th-Century reign of King John V, the workmanship today is superb. Much of it is done at home, under contract to a factory and distributor.

Artisans work most often in silver, which may then be plated with 24-karat gold, or left as is. Some filigree is done in 19-karat gold (Portuguese law requires that no less than 19-karat gold be used in jewelry that is to be sold in Portugal) or in 24-karat gold.

Large Factories

Rosas de Portugal, at Rua 5 de Outubro 20, Gondomar (telephone 983-1199 or 983-1049), is one of the largest factories for filigree. The gold or silver wire is given to workers to take home. The workers spend hours with tweezer-like instruments, looking through magnifying lenses, to make the tiny twists and curves that determine the design.

First they make the heavier frame, then fill it in with minute details of the pattern. The process is one of constant improvisation and embellishment. The more ornate the piece is, the heavier it is--and the workers are paid according to the weight of each piece they make.

Even with the skill required to work the gold and the hours spent in creating the patterns, the artisans are paid very little for their labor, and as a result the jewelry costs much less than you'd expect.

At Rosas de Portugal, silver filigree bracelets, some set with beads to make them look even more old-fashioned, wholesale for $3 or $4. Those that are gold-plated are slightly more expensive, and the 19- or 24-karat gold items are hundreds of dollars. But they are still quite a bargain, especially when you consider the labor involved in this art. The price tag is pegged primarily to the selling price of gold, and relatively little is added to cover the cost of workmanship.

Guided tours have not been established on a regular basis, but you may visit Rosas de Portugal if you call first for an appointment.

Their filigree jewelry and that of other manufacturers is available at slightly higher prices in the jewelry stores along Oporto's street of gold, the Rua das Flores, a charming, twisting little street in the heart of the old part of town, not far from the Douro River that runs through the city.

Calculating the Price

There are nine jewelry shops along Rua das Flores. Like Rosas de Portugal, they calculate the prices of pieces daily, based on the current price of gold. Gold jewelry is tagged, but the number written down refers to the weight of the piece. The tag may also indicate the degree of complexity of the piece. These are the factors that go into the calculation of the price, which is done on the spot when you ask about it.

Antique gold pieces usually have set prices, which are higher than those of contemporary pieces because they usually are made of at least 22-karat gold, and value is placed on old workmanship and the history of the piece.

The shops along Rua das Flores have similar wares, but each piece of filigree is slightly different. All the shops have the basics--pins, pendants, bracelets, earrings and objets d'art.

That gold butterfly in the window of Eduardo Carneiro & Co. comes in a gold-plated version that sells for $5, and smaller butterflies sell for $2. The entire back room of the shop is stocked with filigree. Lovely leaf pins sell for $5 to $7.

Models of caravels that plied the seas during Portugal's days of empire and glory cost around $12, and models of the boats that once ferried barrels of Oporto's famous port wine along the Douro River cost about $26. All in filigree--sails, oars and all.

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