Goldsmithery, ceramics, basketry, glassware... Discover the true Portuguese craftsmanship.
When referring to handicrafts, it's always easy to be tempted by what can be found at a market, on a street corner or in a gift shop but generally, when you go home, you are disappointed by the quality of the item you bought or you may even discover its suspicious origin. Yet, handicrafts are extremely persistent in Portugal, let me give you some hints.
Portugal is the oldest country in Europe! Its borders have not moved since 1139. It is over the course of this rich history that its craftsmanship has been built and has remained very present until now.
Today, Portuguese craftsmen cleverly combine their ancestral know-how with contemporary design. Portuguese craftsmanship is now a source of permanent reinterpretations and is booming. The modern design of Aldeia's Cestas bags which are the result of ancestral basketry techniques, or the use of traditional Minho fabrics by Anabela Jesus, are here to convince you.
So, during your stay in Portugal, avoid to buy the miniature funiculars, the "I love Lisbon" mugs or the bottle openers. Be a discerning customer and enjoy the richness and creativity of Portuguese craftsmanship.
But among all this profusion, what are the great Portuguese craft traditions? What are the objects that carry know-how and creativity? How to find your way around?
★ Earthenware tiles - Azulejos
For centuries, Portugal has been one of the largest and best suppliers of earthenware tiles for the whole of Europe. These earthenware have traditionally been applied to the building. During your stay, you will inevitably see ancient palaces, public buildings, churches and even simple houses covered with them.
The technique of clay tiles was brought by the Moors during their occupation and developed throughout the Iberian Peninsula. The origin of earthenware tiles, however, is much older and dates back to the ancient civilizations of the Middle East around the 1st millennium.
Even today, there is still a debate on the origin of the word Azulejo. According to some, it comes from the Arabic "al zulaydj" (small polished stone), from others it comes from the Portuguese "azul" (blue).
The most beautiful groups of Azulejos in Portugal are those of the Marquis de Fronteira Palace in Lisbon, those of the St. Lawrence Church in Almancil in the Algarve and those of the São Bento railway station in Porto. In the National Museum of the Azulejo in Lisbon you will discover about 10,000 beautiful pieces. These many buildings are protected and patiently restored by the Portuguese heritage authorities both inside and on the façades.
Nowadays, many Portuguese craft workshops are working to redesign the wonderful patterns of the Azulejos. On this subject, please visit our blog on Amelia Celorico, a Portuguese ceramist, who uses the Azulejos patterns on magnificent jewellery. You can also read the article on Ana Sobral, another renowned Portuguese ceramist who adapts these same patterns on her dishes and plates. You may also observe the resumption of these so beautiful patterns on Alexandra Guerreiro's fabrics,
if you would like to enjoy these wonderful Azulejos at home, we have selected 2 or 3 craft workshops that recreate these tiles with traditional techniques, i. e. entirely by hand.
★ Jewellery - Joalharia portuguesa
From the 15th century onwards (time of the great discoveries and the opening of maritime routes), Portuguese goldsmiths and jewellers became among the most famous in Europe. The museums of Guimarães, Coimbra d'Évora and the National Museum of Ancient Art offer collections that trace the art of jewellery in Portugal.
Of all the techniques used, the age-old filigree technique that consists in weaving jewellery made of fine gold and silver lace is still the most common in Portugal. This technique is mainly expressed on crucifixes, Maltese crosses or symbols of nature, religion or love such as the famous Coração de Viana (Heart of Viana)
Filigree technique is an art that requires both great skill and meticulousness from craftsmen. Nowadays, these traditional jewels can be found in most jewellery shops, but it is in Póvoa de Lanhoso, a "village-workshop" where all the families are or have been linked to the activity of silversmithing that the best pieces are crafted. If you would like to know more, you are welcome to read our article on Alma & Coração, a small craft workshop that offers silver or silver filigree jewellery.
★ Basketry - Cestaria
Unfortunately, basketry is also among one of the most endangered activities. The know-how is still prevailing but the point is that the manufacturing of a basket remains very slow and requires a lot of time what is not always valued. However, some have found a way out and, once again, creativity comes to the rescue of tradition. The craft sector is not exempt from the need for renewal Thus, all the basket makers of the village of Castanheira Alcobaça have rallied behind Nuno Barreiro, son of the village, to create baskets with a very contemporary design and make them become a fashion accessory. Please read our blog dedicated to "Cestas d'Aldeia".
★ Ceramics - Cerâmica
Clay working is a centuries-old tradition in Portugal as it is in many other countries. Here it has remained very strong in all the regions.
In the Centre, you will find great traditional decorative dishes and also great brands that have industrialized artisan processes such as Vista Alegre or Bordalo Pinheiro in Caldas da Rainha. You can also find lesser-known brands that use great designers to develop traditional Portuguese patterns like Costa Nova.
Further south, towards the Alentejo, lies the region of traditional tableware. It produces jugs, amphoras, pots, jars, plates of all sizes and shapes, cups, candlesticks and decorative pieces for the garden.
This handicraft mainly expresses itself through earthenware and through objects such as nativity scenes, religious statues, decorative miniatures and, of course, tableware painted with traditional patterns. If we take the time to watch carefully, we discover craftsmen who constantly oscillate between craftsmanship and naive art.... So shall we say, craftsmen or artists? Get an idea by discovering the figurines of Julià Cota, for example. She is one of the greatest representatives of the "Barcelos Figurado" still alive.
★ The glass factory - Vidro
Glassware is another icon of craftsmanship in Portugal. Its production is very concentrated in the Leiria region, in the centre of the country and close to the coast. You will find the best craftsmen who still practice blown glass and have integrated the most recent techniques of fused glass. You will be able to discover one of the best colour palettes in the world.
It was 20 years ago, in 1997, that Portuguese designers Sílvia and Rui met to create "Transforme" in the city of Marinha Grande, the cradle of traditional glass in Portugal. Their work is based on two techniques: the traditional blown glass technique and the glass fusion process. They combine their talent as designers by revisiting the popular imagery of Portugal.