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Shopping: Portugal

Lisbon Lace

The handcrafted gold jewelry sold in the capital is full of filigree and mesh--and still a relative bargain.

June 23, 1996|JILL KNIGHT WEINBERGER | Weinberger is a freelance writer who lives in New Britain, Conn

LISBON, Portugal — Eleven years ago, when the American dollar was strong and the Portuguese escudo was one of Western Europe's weakest currencies, I bought my first piece of handcrafted gold jewelry from one of Lisbon's myriad ourivesarias, or gold shops. It was a small pin in the shape of a bow, fashioned from a fine gold mesh and brightened by a row of tiny turquoise beads.

The pin cost what my husband and I then considered a small fortune, around $250, but I was charmed by it and we were feeling flush because our travel dollar was extending our buying power beyond all expectations. This reckless abandon with our escudos persisted to the end with a last-minute purchase of a pair of gold hoop earrings at the H. Stern Jewelry shop at the airport. My mother-in-law, who was traveling with us, did not approve.

"They're not much," she sniffed, although she was not referring to the price, which was, as I recall, about $40.

The trip was over as far as she was concerned, and any expenditure at this point was frivolous. But those little 19 1/4-karat gold hoops, rather plain indeed, have been my traveling companions for a decade, so versatile, comfortable and secure that they are often the only pair of earrings I bother to take along.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 30, 1996 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Lisbon gold--Due to an editing error, photographs of gold jewelry in the June 23 Travel section were incorrectly credited to Jill K. Weinberger. The photographs were taken by G. J. Weinberger.

While the past decade has witnessed a small reversal of fortune for the dollar and escudo, due in part to Portugal's entry into the European Community. (In 1985 we received 172 escudos per dollar; in January of this year we got only 150.) Portuguese jewelry has, to my mind at least, remained a fine value. Adding several pieces over the years, I have come to recognize some of their traditional design elements and appreciate the craftsmanship manifest in Portuguese jewelry--both gold and silver. While my purchases are dictated by an admittedly modest budget (I spend my discretionary funds on airline tickets), I have never been disappointed. There has always been a pair of earrings, or a filigree pendant or a beaded bracelet, that I could afford.

In Lisbon this January, I reserved time to make the rounds of the ourivesarias, first to window browse and note prices (often conveniently visible), then, almost reluctantly, to purchase. I say reluctantly because window-gazing gives me great pleasure whereas decision-making causes me (momentary) pain. With so many window displays to study, and so many unusual and lovely pieces to choose from, who would not have difficulty selecting just the right souvenir? Perhaps, I still hear my dear late mother-in-law's voice cautioning me against excess.

As usual, I was drawn to those ubiquitous pieces that for me comprise a typical Portuguese "look," especially the bracelets and necklaces imaginatively combining semiprecious stones, gold beads and filigreed links. Often displayed dangling by the dozen in shop windows, these rainbows of gold, coral, lapis, jade and shimmering pearl brighten the often drab, traffic-clogged streets of Lisbon's downtown commercial district. Such bracelets (pulseiras in Portuguese) are worn by plump, matronly, black-haired Lisboans and sleek, fashionable beauties alike, women who board buses and subway cars and who stroll the boulevards wearing them two or three to a wrist. But I have not the nerve nor the language skills to ask where they were bought, how much they cost, whether they are tokens of love or merely investment strategies.

Desiring to learn more about the jewelry I love to look at, its designs and its history, I paid a visit to Lisbon's National Museum of Ancient Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), to wander through a collection of jewelry that spans five centuries and various epochs. Much of the collection was formerly in the possession of churches and convents. It was traditional for families to offer the church a "dowry," a portion of which frequently was gems or jewelry. Because it was stashed away in the safekeeping of the nuns, sometimes for centuries, this jewelry survived intact and untouched, a rich and relatively rare source of period designs. So much fine jewelry undergoes modification from one generation to the next--in accordance with changes in fashion, materials and techniques--that historians must sometimes rely on written documents or portrait art rather than on existing artifacts for information.


Although gold shops and jewelry stores (joalharias) are plentiful throughout Lisbon, I generally like to explore by taking walking tours to three areas in which they are concentrated. All lie within the precinct of Baixa, downtown Lisbon, whose center is the Praca Dom Pedro IV, better known as Rossio, and its adjoining square, the Praca da Figueira. No visitor to the city should miss these bustling squares with their fountains, shops and coffeehouses.

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