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Handmade jewelry tradition

From father to son: the jewelry workshop of the Patten family

“Ou pou trouv de tamariniers” - You will see two tamarind trees. Those were the landmarks we were looking for. The house was indeed bordered by two arguably high tamarind trees, that weren’t even slightly bothered by the surrounding smoke coming out of vehicles.

We are here to meet Mr. Patten, a retired artisan jeweler. He tells us about his house, that he bought right after the racial fights of 1967. He loved it very much and had made an offer. The Muslim owner however, refused to sell it at the price that Mr. Patten had proposed. A few months later, the rioters set fire to the house. “Linn bizin sove ale” the owner had to flee. So, he sold it.

Mr. Patten has a vivid memory of that period. There were severe tensions in Port-Louis and the jewelry workshop at Etienne Pellereau street had to close for a whole week. It was the only time that his workshop has remained closed for so long. And for us, it was the first time that we were breaking the ice by recalling one of the most taboo moments of our history.

Mr. Patten has worked in a jewelry workshop from the age of 9 to that of 72. For sixty-three years he has been holding his tools, for sixty-three years he has been working with gold and silver, for sixty-three years he has been creating beautiful pieces to adorn the necks, wrists and ears of Mauritian beauties.

When he was a child, Mr. Patten did very well at school. He even received a scholarship - “la petite bourse” in standard six. Unfortunately, when his father passed away, he had to quit school abruptly, and start working to cater for the family. He left the pupil life to start the jeweler life. How does a child who loses a parent at 9 years old, and has to start working to support his family feel? Mr. Patten doesn’t disclose his feelings. He doesn’t seem to be comfortable to talk about this period either, as his mild descriptions paint a picture of the difficulties of the past, “letan lontan”.

Learning the trade the hard way

The Patten family comes from a jewelers’ caste in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. The name “Patten” originates from “Pather” in Tamil. In Mauritius, they can also be called “Patté”. Like many immigrants, their name might have been misspelled by the officer in charge of registering their arrival as the latter generally wrote what he heard. And, as a matter of fact, officers often misheard names at the time.

In his uncle’s workshop behind the Jummah Mosque in Port-Louis, “travay ti bien dir”. It was a hard work. His “profeser” the master craftsmen, were Indian Tamils.

“Lanwit lizour asiz ar zot”, "They made me work from dusk to dawn".

When the master craftsmen had to carry out complex manipulations, they would send him out of the workshop so that he could not learn the secret techniques that made them so essential.

At night, he ran to his mother’s house for a quick dinner – his only meal of the day. He then went back to the workshop, where he spent each night, sleeping on the floor. At 4 a.m., he was up, sipping his “dite pir”, black tea before starting his daily 3-hour chore: cleaning the workshop and all the tools before the arrival of the artisans. Being an apprentice, he worked for free.

In the workshop that smells of incense, each tool has its own place, and his masters wouldn’t tolerate any misplacement. At the time, he used a “poukni”, or blower, to light the charcoal and melt gold. A gram of gold cost only Rs7 back then. He put in all his energy until the gold melted and flowed like water. Then, he had to roll and crush it manually with a hammer. Much later, he has been able to buy two machines, which were also operated by hand. His son still uses those to undergo the same task.

Later, he earned 25 cents per month for his job as jeweler. As soon as he received his salary, he went to the barber’s, bought soap to wash his clothes and gave the rest to his mother.

He proudly shows us an old Indian book filled with designs that he had to learn. “Ti bizin konn fer tou sa la”. I had to know how to make all these. It is not an easy job. The jeweler needs to be patient, calm and steady.

In the 1970s, after his uncle passed away, it was time for Mr. Patten to stand on his own feet and start his own workshop. He rented a place in Port-Louis and began working for himself. When people used to pass in front of his worhop they would say things like “mofin lor ou” - you are cursed or “soy” (bad luck) because he had settled at the back of an old “lakaz mor sinwa” (or “kit lok” – a funerary room where dead bodies were kept before being buried).

Traditionally, the jewelry business is passed on from father to son. His grand-father was already an artisan jeweler who left India to come and try his luck in Mauritius. Mr Patten’s son has kept the tradition alive, but what will happen when he retires? “Where will all this knowledge and know-how go?” With a lump in his throat, he leaves this question unanswered.