Chignahuapan makes 70 million holiday ornaments a year, one at a time

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With all the issues building up around the world – concerns about climate change and the lingering pandemic to name just two of the most important – it can be a little difficult to get into the Christmas spirit. But a trip to Chignahuapan, Puebla can definitely help get you in the mood.

This is because Chignahuapan, one of the designated countries of Mexico Pueblos Mágicos, located two hours north of the city of Puebla, has 400 stores and factories dedicated to making just one thing: handcrafted, handcrafted Christmas decorations, known in Mexico as esferas.

The art of making esferas was brought to Chignahuapan when Rafael Méndez Nuñez, a chemical engineer who was interested in the manufacture of ornaments, moved to Chignahuapan from Uruapan, Michoacán in 1966. Initially, the esferas that were made were very simple: round, silver and undecorated. Today, using the same techniques as Méndez, the pioneers, other craftsmen make much more elaborate ornaments.

Esferas today come in countless shapes, sizes and decorations. Some are simple light bulbs painted in bands of light; some have snowflakes or other winter scenes; others are in the form of small peaks; still others were designed to resemble hot air balloons.

The first step in making a esfera transform a long, narrow glass tube into a globe or other figure using a blowtorch. This is done by artisans known as globeadores.

In Esferas Campanita’s studio, a festive ornament takes shape in the form of a thin glass tube.

“The glass we use is Pyrex, which we import from Germany,” said Josué Santos Galindo, who works at Esferas Campanita, a family business founded by Evodio Hererra and Arminda Olvera in 1998.

“You have to know what temperature to use, [and you] need to control it, ”Santos said.

The glass is heated and drawn by a globetrotter so that there are two thin tubes connected to a larger mass in the middle. The glass is ready to be shaped into a bulb when this mass is softened and turns orange. The end of one of the tubes is then heated and sealed.

“The hard part is when the bulb is made,” Santos said.

This is done by gently blowing through the unsealed tube. “You have to let the air in by turning the glass, using only the lips to blow,” he said. “It’s hard to control the air. “

Buyers can try their hand at making a light bulb in the store, working under the watchful eye of Santos or another employee. But it is a difficult skill to do well; it can take up to two weeks to learn how to make a perfectly round bulb.

Juanita Solano Cruz worked as terrestrial globe for 27 years. the esferas that it manufactures are much more complicated than a simple light bulb.

With seemingly little effort, she is able to expertly transform a single piece of thin glass into a esfera of five bulbs of different sizes. To make each of the bulbs, she first heats a small part of the glass, blows the tube to the size she wants, heats another section, and then blows another perfect bulb, continuing the process until that she finish the esfera.

She laughed lightly when asked how long it would take to learn how to do something like this. “It would take about a month to learn how to make the smaller one,” she said. “For a grown-up, you need more experience. In about two years, one person would be an expert.

Once an ampoule is made and cooled, it is filled with a solution of silver nitrate, soaked in lukewarm water and shaken gently to evenly coat the ampoule. This makes the esfera opaque and ready for the next step, which is painting.

About a 10-minute drive from Esferas Campanita is El Castillo de la Esfera, the largest manufacturer of holiday ornaments in Mexico, founded by Javier Tirado Saavedra in 1993. José Romero Sánchez is a pintador (painter) who has been working there for 27 years. “It’s a special paint,” he explained, gently turning the bulb while pouring color on it.

While this may seem like a simple step, it is not. “The important thing is how to turn on the light bulbs,” Romero said. In a typical day, he can paint 5,000.

Castillo de la Esfera, Chignahuapan, Puebla
Each ornament is also hand-dyed before being decorated with a painted motif or scene.

Once dried, the stem still attached to the bulb is cut using a small emery stone. Once done, the bulb is ready to be decorated.

Eduardo Rueda Caballero sits at his workbench, concentrating intensely on the flowers he paints on a bulb. “I can decorate 60 in a day,” he said. Learning to paint a light bulb like the one he was working on takes about a week, he said. “Practice daily. “

Nearby, Orlando Reyes painted something more complicated, el Nacimiento – a crib – on light bulbs. He can do 100 in three days, painting the scene in stages. “Although we take longer to make them,” said Carolina Vázquez, another pintadora, “we do them well.”

El Castillo de la Esfera and Esferas Campanita are also making esferas, paint anything a client requests on the outside or put a photo inside. Small esferas go for as little as 50 pesos (US $ 2.50) a dozen, while the more expensive cost 500 to 600 ($ 25 to US $ 30) each.

“When people see esferas in a store, they don’t know how much work is put into it, ”Santos said. “That’s why it costs more. If people knew how much work goes into it, they would appreciate it more. “

Esferas Campanita is smaller, employing 15 people in its store and – during the high season from October to early January – 15 more in its workshop.

El Castillo de la Esfera is several times bigger.

“200 families here depend on the business,” said Arturo Amezcua Muñoz, who worked there for three years as an online sales manager. “This includes salespeople, drivers, carpenters. One hundred people work in the factory.

He said the plant produces “millions” of esferas per year, operating all year round. “We have to,” he said, “prepare for this season. “

The company also offers factory tours. On a recent Sunday 4,000 people passed by.

If you are hoping to spend a day in Chignahuapan, besides its multitude of shops selling esferas, has a beautiful zocalo with a colorful gazebo. During the season there is a huge Christmas tree with performers dressed as Santa Claus, Grinches and other characters.

There is also the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a Baroque-style church with a beautifully painted facade and its 14-meter-high sculpture of the Virgin Mary inside. For those looking for a little more nature, there is the Laguna Almoloya, the pueblo‘s, as well as waterfalls, rivers and hot springs nearby.

Esferas Campanita, Chignahuapan, Puebla
Ornaments from Esferas Campanita designed to resemble hot air balloons. Courtesy of Esferas Campanita

Chignahuapan workshops are estimated to produce 70 million esferas one year, each of them made by hand – a laborious process but not one that will change.

“It’s important to make them by hand to preserve the tradition and for the job,” Santos said. “We all have jobs. He helps people economically in Chignahuapan. The character of this pueblo is as a producer of handmade ornaments.

When asked if there were any plans to mechanize the process in the future, he simply answered “No”.

• Esferas Campanita has one store in Chignahuapan while Castillo de la Esfera has four in the pueblo and two others in Mexico.

Joseph Sorrentino, writer, photographer and author of the book San Gregorio Atlapulco: Cosmvisiones and Stinky Island Tales: Some Stories from an Italian-American Childhood, is a regular contributor to Mexico Daily News. You can find more examples of his photographs and links to other articles on www.sorrentinophotography.com He currently lives in Chipilo, Puebla.


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