School of rocks

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Horacio Esteban has built up a reputation as the most celebrated craftsman of Caymanite – the semi precious stone found only in the Cayman Islands. CD Traveller discovers more about the island boy done good

Horacio EstebanThe son of a Cuban father and Caymanian mother, Esteban was brought up on Cayman Brac (one of the ‘sister’ islands) and spent much of his childhood “hiking across the bluff”. It was while hiking that Horacio came across “Caymanite in coastal blow holes”. The attraction was instant: “The rock had been tumbled and turned in the surf and thrown out by the holes already naturally polished. The stones looked just like jewels,” he recalls.

Captivated by the stone’s smoothness and beauty, Esteban began collecting Caymanite and before long the young entrepreneur was making jewellery out of the gem. “Growing up on a small island there wasn’t much to do so you had to make your own fun,” Esteban explains. “The lack of options encourages you to get creative.” Eddie Scott, Esteban’s Industrial Arts teacher at Cayman Brac High School, further fired his interest in Caymanite and encouraged Esteban to try his hand at sculptures; soon he was sculpting shapes ranging in stature from the size of matchsticks to those as big as dinner plates – many of which he gave as gifts to friends and family.

Yet ‘art’ wasn’t the only area in which Esteban excelled; a keen sportsman, Horatio not only impressed in track and field (indeed his record remains untouched to this day) but also displayed a head for numbers, which led to a degree in data processing from a US university. Post graduation, Esteban stayed on in the States where he met and married his wife and simultaneously started a family and a fledgling career as a businessman.

Colossus - Caymanite Sculpture by Horacio EstebanFate however, intervened and when the American economy experienced a downturn in 1980, Esteban returned to the Cayman Islands where he found employment “as a scuba instructor having become the youngest dive master in Cayman at the age of 16.” Back on the Brac, Esteban rediscovered his love of the striated stone and when he wasn’t in the underwater kingdom, created objects d’art from Caymanite as a way of earning extra money to feed his young family. His work thrilled his followers who urged Esteban to “stop wasting myself and pursue this [art] full time. People kept saying ‘Caymanite is your calling – make this your business.’””

Esteban duly listened to the locals and set up his own shop selling items he had designed such as sculptures and functional art (think tables, toothbrush holders et al) at Dilbert’s Plaza back in 1997. The response to the Red Bay gallery was ecstatic and Esteban saw his popularity spread like morning sunlight, so it comes as no surprise to learn that the artist was subsequently offered “gallery space in a prime position; on the Georgetown waterfront” where he exhibited his work for four years. Never one to rest on his laurels (“I am in pursuit of the challenge and am always ‘moving the stick,’“ he says), Esteban enrolled on workshops in countries like Cuba and Italy where he learnt new techniques and skills – casting in bronze anyone? In 2006 “mindful of the way the economy was heading”, Esteban quit the Cayman capital and relocated to a less salubrious and sought after but more spacious space in West Bay which today serves as his “studio, work shop and family home all rolled into one.”

It’s at this sprawling West Bay abode that visitors can watch in worshipful silence as Esteban creates custom Caymanite pieces for individuals and companies (Esteban is often called upon by companies to design accessories and awards), making every item – be it exquisite jewellery or dramatic sculptures – both personal and unique. Recently Esteban has woven Caymanite inlays into his work; witness the round table with an inlay in the shape of a butterfly that stands in Esteban’s gallery and won him the prestigious McCoy Prize – Cayman’s highest artistic achievement award. But the accolades don’t stop there; Esteban has established an A list following and rumoured high profile fans include Danny Glover, Brian Lara and Nelson Mandela no less – not bad for a boy from the Brac. We say ‘rumoured’ because Esteban somewhat maddeningly refuses to either confirm or deny his celeb following. Indeed if there is anyone who shepherds his career more closely, CD Traveller would like to meet them: everything he does is superbly controlled. All the same Esteban is easy to like and listen to (he has not so much kissed the blarney stone as eaten it) – particularly when it comes to Caymanite, which he talks about with all the enthusiasm of a young boy. It’s no secret that the stone (whose colour ranges from reds, sea shell pinks and oranges to multi hued browns, grays, blacks and whites) channels conflicting opinions; much like marmite you either love the dolomite or hate it – there’s really no in between. Esteban clearly falls into the first camp and grows as excited as a kid in a candy shop as he waxes lyrical about “the variety and colour of Caymanite; like human beings no two pieces are the same,” he says. “There is a romance to Caymanite. People see a piece of art created from a genuinely indigenous material that tells a story in every layer. The history of the Cayman Islands has been sealed inside this natural material.” Pausing for breath he adds: “It’s also a very durable stone; all you need to do is wash it with water.”

Nonetheless, despite his affection for and success (the man has been astonishingly prolific) with “this amazing stone”, Esteban has worked with a wide range of material from metal and wood to limestone and concrete. He has also proven his talent as a painter – all of which demonstrates his boundless range and all of which he has approached in one of two ways: “I work in a freestyle fashion or alternatively I make a model (clay marquis) and the blueprint becomes imprinted on my mind. This is a much more organized way of working as there is less room for error,” Esteban explains. “As to which way I work, it depends on whether the work is therapeutic or for a customer. If it’s for the latter and they have been specific about their desires then I need to make a model.” Regardless, the challenges remain the same: “As a business man, the problem is finding outlets for your work. As an artist the test is listening to the piece, looking at the piece and studying it long enough.”

So what’s next for Esteban? Partly as a recession busting technique, the charismatic craftsman is focusing on products with credit crunch friendly prices – think letter openers, pendants and key chains as opposed to stingray sculptures that are admittedly striking but also time consuming and costly. Furthermore in these low temper times, Esteban wants to teach his countrymen how to make craft jewellery, sculptures from stone and so on and to this end already has “education programmes written out” for he believes Cayman can “beat the economic downturn with education.” Warming to his theme he reveals: “we should use the gloomy economy as motivation and learn new skills to improve our employability so that when things pick up, people will be prepared and seasoned. I want to give people life tools so that they can sustain themselves and survive.”

Esteban, of course, has not just survived he has thrived and continues to do so with his unmatchable Caymanite creations which collectively serve as a mark of style and elegance, a tiny personal charm or a valuable possession. Whether you call Cayman ‘home’ or are merely holidaying on the islands, owning something carved by Esteban out of the distinctively coloured stone provides the opportunity to be unique. All told, Caymanite isn’t about carats – it’s about emotion and the wonderful way it makes you feel.

To view Horacio Esteban’s work email

How Caymanite came into being
Much like Larmar – another semi precious stone found in the Caribbean – Caymanite came about from volcanic activity. When volcanic ash poured in on the rocks below the volcano, it formed sediments that eventually hardened into rocks whose different coloured layers can be attributed to the contrasting mineral content of the various layers of ash. Typically Caymanite is made up of earth hues such as sea shell pinks, yellows, browns and whites. As a rule of thumb, darker coloured Caymanite objects d’art tend to be more expensive than lighter coloured pieces.

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