CORDILLERA: Magnifying small wonders
Sylma Santos-Santori considers her hands the "most important part of her body." With them, she teaches theater and visual arts at a Sunnyside, Queens, elementary school. She uses them as a photographer, and to jump among the rocks of the Charco El Mangó river when she escapes home to her native Puerto Rico. But of all the things her hands can do and make, Sylma's intricate, knotted necklaces and striking clay pendants stand out as the most exquisite.
Sylma has been crafting with 3rd and 4th graders in Queens for many years. Though now armed with a fine-arts degree and exploding business, she can relate to their virginal creativity and eagerness to explore.
"I remember as a little girl, I always, always, always had crayons with me," Sylma said. "I had all the colors in the world. It was a gift I would never forget, and I still have some of the originals! My students are very young and I love to be playful with them when we work. Like, they always have something sassy to say and wear all of these crazy colors! I totally get it, though—I used to papier-mâché or draw with my cousins every single day. "
While crafting with eager students offered fulfillment, Sylma felt compelled to make something that was wholly hers. Something she could make with her hands. Last November, she started her first jewelry collection, making bold statement necklaces with knotted rope. They all sold out in a month.
SHOP THE COLLECTION
Homesick on a rainy New York night and yearning for the beach, Sylma did what any desperate, digitally inclined millennial would: She turned to Google Images. Clicking through pictures of the ocean and tropical shore, she stumbled across a high-res photo of sand under a microscope and paused in absolute wonder.
"In Puerto Rican-Spanish slang," Sylma said, "Larena means 'sand.' And that's how this collection came to life. I studied the microscopic pieces and I felt this sudden need to use my hands and get involved and get working. Have you ever seen sand close up? You should. It's incredible."
After doing as instructed, the Larena collection finally clicked. In a fraction of a handful of sand lie fragments of coral, glassy minerals, scraps of sea urchin, chunks of lava, and splintered shells. The Larena line perfectly encapsulates the texture, color, and complexity of each and every grain.
Working on the Puerto Rican-inspired Larena collection excited not only Sylma's hungry customer base, but Sylma herself. She has lived in New York for four years, but never anticipated becoming a permanent resident. She yearns for Puerto Rico, naming her necklaces after people, places, and things connected to home.
"I was 12 when I first visited New York," Sylma said. "For me it was the most amazing place. I fell in love with it. I told myself, 'When I'd done with college, I'm definitely going there.' I came immediately after graduating with no money to my name. It was supposed to be a vacation."
But she never went back. And now, with the Larena collection, she can make and share a piece of home in Queens and beyond. Even her mom, who is still in Puerto Rico, helps Sylma with the business and brand building side of Cordillera, even if it means communicating by text and email. Sylma constantly thinks about her family, often reminiscing of her grandma and the immaculate beaches.
"I can't invite everyone to my grandmas house, but it's a big part of my inspiration and where everything started," Lorena said. "I would love every Larena buyer to come visit my grandma or go with me to the beaches in Culebra or Vieques. The sand is super white and the water is so clear, you can see the starfish on the floor."
Lucky for Sylma, we can feel her home in the knots and marbling that define her stunning pieces. We sense the warmth of her family and the country that loves her, the yellow Puerto Rican air she clings to when trapped under a grey Manhattan sky.
"This is one of the times my family is most proud of me—they show me off to their friends and my grandma buys my necklaces in bulk. But... I'm proud of myself, in a way. The hardest part of building Cordillera was to just to let go and say, 'I'm going to do it. I don't care if people like it or don't like it or what.' I let go of being self-conscious and just stuck with making what I love. And you know what? I'm thrilled with that."
By Ali Kriegsman
“Sand, texture, warmth. Nature in its most minimal look.”
The time came to summon her spirit at the round table, the crystal ball changed into bloody red tone and Sylma Santos-Santori appeared with cat eyes and a sweet pitched voice that said: “Ask me anything…except math.” The crafty witch her self came alive through color and shape.
Q: How did you start ?
A: “Cordillera started out last year. I’m an art teacher and lately I’ve been doing art through my students and always felt like something was missing. When I’m teaching art, I help students create but I don’t necesarily use my hands primarily to build anything and for me that’s very important to be able to create something with your hands. I had a necklace made of rope with a bunch of nots, and every time I wore that necklace out people asked me if I made it, so If people thought I made that, It meant I could actually do it. I began experimenting with different types of ropes and ways of doing nots and that’s how my first collection titled “La Isla” was born.”
Q: Where does the inspiration come from?
A: “Most of my inspiration comes from the bright green mountains of Puerto Rico and my Grandmother Abita’s house. Then last year I met Tondy who was creating stuff with clay at home, she became my mentor and in no time I had my own clay kit to experiment with.” -laughs-
Q: Tell us about your new collection Larena
A: “Well you know how the slang in the island is -laughs- we never say “La Arena” (The Sand) we say “Larena”(Thesand) so last winter I was freezing in NY, all I could think of was the tropical weather of the island, and I came across a picture of sand under a microscope. The colors in the sand inspired me to magnify them. I like geometric figures, Cordillera is very minimalist but at the same time a statement piece. To be able to say a lot with just a little, specially here in NY where you spend so much money on food and clothing. I just throw on the same shirt with a different necklace and it turns into a whole new outfit.”
Q: How does New Yorkers react to your collection ?
A: “It’s a weird reception in NY -laughs- I feel like people here are scared of wearing Cordillera because everyone’s in a more serious mood still some find it very interesting. It’s been more successful in California and Arizona, maybe because the weather is more similar to the island, and people there are more daring and caliente -laughs- my collection is very playful and fun.”
‹ by: Sylma Santos-Santori
Model: Gabriela Berlingeri
Editor: Julianna Himet
Photographer: Liaryz Ramos ›