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A Site Where Traditional Artisans Can Sell Their Works To The World

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A Site Where Traditional Artisans Can Sell Their Works To The World

The Industry

A Site Where Traditional Artisans Can Sell Their Works To The World

A Site Where Traditional Artisans Can Sell Their Works To The World

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/465139742/465180998" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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These traditional Mayan figures made by artisans in Guatemala are sold online by Novica. Laura Sydell/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Laura Sydell/NPR

These traditional Mayan figures made by artisans in Guatemala are sold online by Novica.

Laura Sydell/NPR

Every time we turn around, there's a new technology that seems to make everything faster, cheaper and easier. Yet consumers seem to be increasingly interested in some very slow and old technologies — like woodcarving, weaving and other handmade items.

Ironically, it's a modern technology — the Internet — that's making it easy for lovers of artisan goods to find goods and craftsmakers.

Take an artisan like Nicolas Chavez. I met Chavez at his rooftop workshop in Santiago Atitlan — a breathtaking Guatemalan village on the shores of the volcanic Lake Atitlan. He spoke to me as he carved a piece of cedar into a Mayan moon goddess.

"The moon goddess traditionally helped to bring children into the world safely," Chavez said.

It's one of many traditional Mayan figures that he and his apprentices carve.
Chavez said he learned to carve from his late father, Diego Chavez. "He was the first artisan woodcarver here in Santiago in 1965."

Guatemalan woodcarver Nicolas Chavez creates traditional Mayan figures at his rooftop workshop and sells them on Novica's website. Laura Sydell/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Laura Sydell/NPR

Guatemalan woodcarver Nicolas Chavez creates traditional Mayan figures at his rooftop workshop and sells them on Novica's website.

Laura Sydell/NPR

But carving is an ancient art form in this area of the world, dating back to the Mayan kingdom thousands of years ago. Part of what makes Chavez's story so interesting is that he survived Guatemala's long civil war and spent a harrowing period as a prisoner.

"When the war ended here in Santiago, I was able to come out and start leading a regular, normal life, and I started working with a lady that used to sell in the airport in Guatemala City," Chavez said. "I worked directly with her for many, many years."

Last year, Roberto Milk and his family saw Chavez's sculptures in a Guatemalan market. "We thought, 'We have to find the person that made this sculpture.' We finally got out of them that it was probably from around Lake Atitlan," Milk said.

Milk is the co-founder and CEO of Novica — a company that bills itself as the Etsy of the developing world. Novica's website features the work of more than 18,000 artisans — many of them found the same way that Milk found Chavez.

"We'll actually go into very remote areas and look for artisans," Milk said. "And when we discover an artisan, we know that if they have great products that their lives are about to change."

Take Chavez. Novica more than doubled his sales in the first year — from around $7,000 annually to around $15,000.

Traditional Mayan figures made by artisan Nicolas Chavez in Guatemala and sold on Novica's website. Christopher Noey hide caption

toggle caption Christopher Noey

Traditional Mayan figures made by artisan Nicolas Chavez in Guatemala and sold on Novica's website.

Christopher Noey

Novica has regional offices in South America, India, Thailand and West Africa and a Central American office in Antigua, Guatemala, that's run by Diego Chacon. Chacon said the regional offices help artisans photograph and prepare their work to be sold online.

Sometimes the products need improvement. For example, Chacon found artisans weaving beautiful bags from candy wrappers. But after a week of being stored in the office, they were covered with ants.

"We talked to them about the problem and said, 'You have to boil them or wash them or do something with them, because this cannot be sold. I cannot sell these to anyone.' "

Novica says it has sent more than $66.5 million in revenue to artisans around the world since it was founded in 1999.

Though Novica is one of the oldest, it is now one of many online businesses selling the work of artisans from around the world. Between 2002 and 2012, the artisan economy doubled to more than $32 billion a year, said Felipe Buitrago, a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank.

"Artisans are returning with a vengeance," Buitrago said. He added that ironically, as technology has taken over more of our lives, consumers are getting more interested in handcrafted goods.

"Twenty years ago, you just wanted a new set of silverware," Buitrago said. "But today you want a set of silverware that comes with a story, that comes with a process that you can share when you're inviting your friends over to your place so you can say, 'This silverware set comes from this place [and] was produced in this way.' "

And now, finding those handcrafted goods is just a click away.

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