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A shopkeeper in Chiquinquirá holds a dry tagua fruit cluster that contained the seeds.
Photo by Cristina Díaz-Carrera, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution

The Plant

The tagua palm belongs to the phyltelephas acquatorialis (equatorial elephant plant) species and grows abundantly along the banks of tropical rivers in Colombia. Large globular clusters of seed-bearing fruits, the size of a melon, grow at the base of the female plant. Each fruit is studded with pointed horns and contains four or more large seeds. A single palm can produce fifty pounds of nuts a year.

uan César Bonilla holds a tagua seed that has been removed from the cluster and one that has been turned and polished on the lathe.
Photo by Cristina Díaz-Carrera, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution


The tagua palm is native to the rainforest, but its seeds found their way to the highlands, where artists in Boyacá developed a tradition of carving them over a hundred years ago. In the 19th century, tagua seeds were probably shipped abroad from the Magdalena River in the Momposino Depression. Known for its hardness and texture as vegetable ivory, it became a valuable export commodity in the nineteenth century, used for making buttons. At this time, tagua seeds were also used as ballast for ships traveling to Europe and the United States. In the 1950s, newly developed synthetic materials replaced the large-scale use of the tagua seed.

Today, artisans still work with tagua—carving it with, gouges, electrical lathes, and scrimshaw tools to fashion useful and decorative objects of great beauty.

Juan César Bonilla González and his Repertoire

Master carver Juan César Bonilla is from a family that has been working with tagua for generations. In his workshop in the town of Tinjacá in the state of Boyacá in the Colombian highlands, Juan César has modified a lathe and his carving tools for shaping and polishing his pieces. He likes to leave some of the husk on the seed to distinguish his finished pieces from crafts made with synthetic materials.

Juan César has seeds in storage that are twenty and thirty years old. The seeds become denser with age and acquire a deep golden hue.  His knowledge of his materials is deep. He explains, “At age six or seven, we learn to carefully choose the raw material, recognize how long it has been drying, and the amount of moisture in the seed. We learn to figure out where the seed has cracked inside while drying. By knowing the condition the seed is in we can work it and transform it.”

Juan César learned his craft from his father, who founded the Fábrica de Artesanías en Tagua which Juan César now runs. While his father was famous for carving miniscule chess sets, Juan César has expanded his repertoire to decorative pieces, jewelry, and toys. Occasionally he carves pieces by hand—but this is time intensive and it is difficult to find customers who appreciate their value. He markets his work nationally and internationally; and among the jobs he receives are orders for conventions and other business events. His wife Julia Patricia Vergara is also an artist. She enjoys working with Juan César in his workshop, and occasionally she draws landscapes on his pieces.

Juan César
Juan César Bonilla is a master tagua carver, an art form and business that were passed down to him from his father. He also understands the value of tagua carving as a sustainable occupation and takes every opportunity to share his craft with the world. He is equal parts artist and educator as he demonstrates his carving skill while explaining the importance of protecting Colombian rainforest sustainable resources, which also create work opportunities.
Photo by Michelle Arbeit, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution

Community Sustainability

Juan César is among the fourth and fifth generation of tagua carvers in the region, and he works hard to promote the craft throughout the country.  He likes to travel to the rainforest regions where tagua palm grows to do workshops. He describes how tagua carving offers alternative employment opportunities in Colombia and how tagua products have the potential to generate five times the income of banana plantation and cattle ranch workers and help protect the endangered rainforests of South America. He is also concerned about the debris that results from tagua carving.  He and Julia Patricia have experimented with transforming the discarded material into decorative paper and gift packages. And he offers recycling workshops to the local community.

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