Alvaro and Caroline Coronado’s Ashland Jewelry studio is a creation frozen in time. A seemingly ancient, chaotic workbench reveals a mystifying selection of primitive, handmade tools, recycled dental picks and computer scraps, chunks of wood, cloth and metal with proprietary uses that master goldsmith and jewelry designer Alvaro closely guards. Foot-powered bellows, discarded TV stands and various railroad ephemera clutter the studio, but all serve to enhance his imaginative creations.
“When I have handmade tools I can mold exactly what I need,” says the lean, cheerful and doggedly self-sufficient Colombian native, whose long fingernails attest to his love of flamenco guitar. “I am a hoarder. I keep each little piece of metal because one day it will become a tool, and when I have my hands trained and my brain trained to create that tool, it works better than anything else.”
Alvaro’s remarkable tool-making abilities, with Caroline’s business acumen combined to meticulously create a sterling silver Ashland Theater Christmas ornament. In a recent Celebrating Virginia’s Localities competition, it was chosen to grace the tree of the Executive Mansion.
With no formal or professional training other than an unwavering work ethic, Alvaro put 50 years of Old World craftsmanship and experience into the scant 48 hours he had to create the exquisite ornament while Hurricane Joaquin raged outside the couple’s 800-square-foot Ashland studio apartment.
“We originally were planning to go North that weekend,” Caroline says. “Since we were stuck here, we decided to make it after all.”
Working feverishly, almost nonstop, Alvaro completed the piece with less than 15 minutes to spare.
Alvaro’s jewelry-making career began at age 9, watching over the shoulders of master jewelers in Bogota as he swept the floors. He endured brush-offs and elbows to the stomach but started learning trade secrets.
“Colombia is a loving country, but jobs are extremely difficult to find,” Caroline says, which helps explain why older jewelers are reluctant to teach their young charges. “So when you have a skill, you go into survival mode and are reluctant to share.”
“But poverty and hunger are great motivators,” Alvaro says.
Arriving in America in 1985, and then moving to Ashland 10 years later after living in Long Island and North Carolina, the Coronados originally had a second-floor studio by the railroad tracks. Passing trains shook the building, further challenging Alvaro to perfect his rock-steady skills, honed from the adversities of working in Colombia.
Successfully completing the ornament by deadline was testament to Alvaro’s discipline and half-century dedication to perfecting his craft. With the partial view of the historical theater from his studio window shrouded in torrential rain, he worked from photographs -- melting, forming and then flattening finger-size silver ingots into square strips in a hand-cranked press.
He then cut, molded and soldered those strips into rudimentary shape. He scratched the shapes and texture of brick into the central tower, set the green and red stones and even soldered tiny red and green silver strips carefully bent to re-create the neon tubes in the marquee.
The Ashland lettered at the top presented yet another challenge. “It is a custom font,” Alvaro says, “so I had to cut the letters by hand.” A floor under the marquee was added to make the ornament freestanding, and ingeniously designed to appear to be reflecting light from inside. A kissing couple and a child stand in front.
Symbols in the front windows, including a crescent moon and star, represent Ashland’s long-standing claim as the center of the universe.
In addition to creating new pieces, Alvaro also hand repairs family heirloom jewelry because he insists that it’s the closest a jeweler can come to restoring the sentiment that lives inside. Confidently explaining that “anything and everything is possible to fix,” he adds that many customers come to them after giving up on other jewelers.
“They say: ‘This was my great-grandmother’s and has sentimental value,’” he says. “I then fix that piece as if it were my own grandmother’s. And all these primitive tools help make that happen.”
Caroline proudly notes that theirs was the first dedicated arts studio in Ashland’s burgeoning arts and culture district. “We are self-sufficient,” she says, highlighting their business motto “Old world craftsmanship in a modern industry.”
“We live and work from this small space. We don’t send out, we don’t farm out,” she says, pausing for a moment and smiling. “And it seems everything is moving so fast forward, but more and more I find ourselves going in reverse.”
And that’s fine with them.
Handmade solid brass versions of this ornament are available for sale at Coronado Studio in Ashland.