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Workers at Pickman La Cartuja fight for the survival of the stoneware factory established by an English merchant in 1841. Carmen Vivero, their leader, holds on to its significance for Seville, where this craft has existed for thousands of years: “It’s living history ”
“The word on the street is that La Cartuja is closed. But no, we are not closed and the goal is to never close,” says Carmen Vivero, president of the Workers Committee and member of the Comisiones Obreras trade union, from her post at the factory of the company Pickman La Cartuja de Sevilla S.A. just outside the town of Salteras, 8 miles west of Seville. “We are here fighting to stay open… at least for now.”
Due to the economic crisis, the company has been struggling to keep its doors open for years. All rumors aside, today Pickman La Cartuja is manufacturing the same high-quality and unique place settings, lamps, and other works of stoneware artistry that have been produced in Seville since a merchant from Liverpool, Charles Pickman, opened the factory in 1841. The factory took the name La Cartuja because the English entrepreneur built the ovens and warehouses inside the old and abandoned Carthusian monastery of Santa María de las Cuevas, across the river. Now, after the factory moved to a more modern installation, the precinct is the home of the Andalusian Museum of Contemporary Art (MAAC), where the relics of the 19th century industrial activity can still be seen. But contrary to popular belief, production is not over.
Inside Zadi, a small store off of Sierpes Street, employee Rocío López is questioned by a customer holding and examining a stoneware piece with the emblem of Pickman La Cartuja printed on the base. “La Cartuja is closed, isn’t it?” López is not surprised by the question and assures the customer that the factory is open before placing the stoneware piece back behind the glass.
“There are people like this customer who are never sure if the factory is open or closed, but it’s open,” assures López. As a matter of fact, employees of the factory, which is nowadays owned by entrepreneur from Málaga Antonio Hierrezuelo, are meeting demands and producing, while trying to repress their fear about the company’s financial status and waiting for the promised aid of the regional government.
Carmen Vivero sits at the long wooden table centered in the bright, elegant room with orange accent walls and beautiful ceramics placed on every possible flat surface. The space serves as conference room although it looks more like a museum. No two sets are alike but they all complement one another.
Vivero pulls out a book of Pickman La Cartuja and flips through the pages, letting her hand linger longer on some than others. It is clear that the factory’s history has become a part of her life. She has worked at Pickman for over 30 years and throughout the past 10, she has been fighting to prove its importance and keep it alive. She talks about each item individually, telling their stories and intricate fabrication processes.
“If you saw how the pieces are decorated and put together, it would not seem expensive at all. Being handmade, I think that’s where there charm lies in La Cartuja stoneware—in the craft,” she says. “However small, each piece goes through the hands of the artisans. There are very few machines here.”
Luis Morenas is the storeowner of La Cerámica de Sevilla, located on 36 García de Vinuesa Street, in El Arenal quarter near the Cathedral. He has sold La Cartuja products since 1986. “It’s always closing, opening, closing, opening. It has bad luck,” Morenas says. “Despite all of this, each aspect of their production is highly regarded—the design, fabrication and quality.”
Ceramics, which as a craft is embedded in the culture and history of Seville, is at the core of human civilization, as it provided the basis for commerce and the development of more organized societies. The banks of the Guadalquivir River have provided the raw material needed to make pots, amphoras and basins for thousands of years. So intense was the trade of olive oil, wine and wheat, among other agricultural produce of Seville’s river valley during the first to third century, that with millions of discarded ceramic containers just coming from this part of the Roman Empire they filled a dump site covering 20,000 square miles that eventually become a hill, today known as Monte Testaccio in Rome. Not surprisingly, Seville’s history of ceramic artistry also includes the work of saint patrons of the city and early Christian martyrs Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, sisters who were born in the neighborhood of Triana at the end of the third century AD and who helped their family in their main occupation: the craft of ceramics.
Seventy-eight-year-old Antonio Zarco, who worked at Galerías Preciados, a large chain of department stores that closed in 1995, remembers the rising popularity of La Cartuja products as well as every middle class family having pieces during the seventies. He recalls it being very rare for a set not to appear on a wedding list back then. Not now. “I’m not sure if the sales are in accordance with the need to continue manufacturing, because it is a product that most young people nowadays rarely use,” Zarco says. “We used to buy them over 40 years ago, but today, if it weren’t for tourism, these sales would not be as successful.”
Back at the factory, Vivero says that if there wasn’t sufficient demand for the products in store or commercially, they would have to come to terms with the fact that the fashion had passed. “But this is not the case. This product is in high demand and people are buying,” she claims.
In his shop, Morenas explains that tourists are well informed about La Cartuja crafts and their significance. “This product is well known. La Cartuja also provided for the Spanish royal palace. It’s a very important factory in Spain and internationally,” he says. “La Cartuja is very important to Seville. It will always be a factory symbolic of the city. It is very valuable. But it’s always been a factory hit hard politically. It’s always the same game: something rather cursed.”
Carmen Vivero, explains, “Since July, we’ve had an outstanding debt. Nevertheless, we keep on working and that is what matters most. We had a staff of 99, but now we have just 50. And here we are, trying to do what is best for the factory, while charging very little.”
Facing 17 million euro in debt, Pickman has reached out to the regional government of the Junta de Andalucía and national government officials, receiving minimal assistance, according to Vivero. “With the economic crisis, we know that for them this is just one more company. But for years we’ve told them ‘Come to the factory and see for yourself because it is not only the legacy of the workers and business, but also a legacy of Seville,” she says. “But they don’t come. They don’t come.”
Workers often go unpaid for months and the company has had to either make part of its staff redundant or establish a reduction of paid working hours for employees. “Those of us who’re still here are very scared of losing our jobs,” says Vivero. “And not just because there aren’t other jobs out there, but because we don’t want to abandon our factory; we don’t want to see it close,” he says. “We are hanging on by a thread, but thanks to the sacrifices of our workers, we intend to get through this.”
Carmen Vivero is the face of determination that the company must assume in hope to pull through. “This factory will continue. Pickman is not over. It’s a living history.”