Story by MARK SAAL • Photos and video by BEN DORGER • Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN — René Venegas is a silversmith, like his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather and ... well, frankly there’s just not enough space here to list the entire genealogy of the Venegas silversmithing legacy.
Suffice to say Venegas, who lives and works in Ogden, proudly declares himself a 16th-generation silversmith. It’s a family tradition he can trace back through Colombia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic to Spain — dating to a couple of hundred years before Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the New World.
Indeed, it was a Venegas who was the first silversmith to set foot on American soil, according to his and his wife’s Etsy profile.
“My ancestor, Felipe Venegas, came to the Americas with Columbus on his second trip,” Venegas says in a recent interview at The Local Artisan Collective in downtown Ogden, where he creates and sells his silverwork, as well as teaches classes. “He was a silversmith, making religious artifacts for the Catholic churches to be built in the New World.”
The Local Artisan Collective, at 2371 Kiesel Ave., started in October 2016. The group of about 70 artists creates and sells all manner of handcrafted items — including paintings, jewelry, pottery, woodworking, clothing, literature, glasswork and more. The collective also hosts various classes, workshops and other events.
René Venegas’ wife, Jenny Venegas, is one of the collective’s founders. The couple also runs Galleon’s Gold Jewelry out of their Ogden home.
In his younger days, René was an officer in the Colombian Army. He then became a lawyer, and he holds a master’s degree in Spanish and English literature from a university in Barcelona, Spain.
René hopes to write a historical book on silversmithing in South America. He wants to explore the shared history of South Americans working in jewelry and Europeans working in silver, and how the two groups came together.
Venegas says he uses “the Old World processes” of silversmithing in his creative work, repairs and teaching. For example, to heat the silver for his jewelry work he uses an old blowtorch that burns gasoline — a foot pump provides the air to pressurize the system and control the flame.
René and Jenny Venegas have been married 12 years. Jenny is a school teacher; they have an 11-year-old daughter.
When they met, René was in Utah on a tourist visa.
“He was working for the Colombian government as a lawyer,” Jenny says. “He put away a drug cartel guy, and he was getting threats, so he thought he’d leave the country and let things cool down.”
Ogden seemed as good a place as any to wait for things to blow over; René and Jenny met at church.
“He saw me from the back of the room and said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry,’” she recalls.
But there was one little problem. René spoke only Spanish.
“He didn’t know any English, so we’d take a Spanish-English dictionary on our dates, or double with a bilingual couple,” Jenny says. “But he kept cooking for me and feeding me, so I couldn’t say no.”
When the couple got married, René didn’t have a lot of money. So he took a silver quarter, cut it in half and just went ahead and created a wedding ring for his future wife.
“I married the cheapest man in the world,” Jenny jokingly tells people. “He paid a quarter for my wedding ring.”
A dozen years later, René’s English is much better. And he loves teaching others the centuries-old trade he learned from his father.
“When I was 5 years old, my father taught me silversmithing,” René says. “Later, I studied jewelry-making at an artist school.”
René ended up working with his father, off and on, over the decades. His father, who is now 85, had no desire to teach silversmithing, but over the generations, Colombian men didn’t have much of an opportunity to go to school for a profession. The only way they could provide for themselves, René says, was to work in the trades they’d learned from their families — silver, or perhaps wood.
“My father would always tell me, ‘I teach you one time,’” he says.
René, by contrast, loves teaching others how to work with silver.
“He comes to life when he’s teaching,” Jenny says.
During his classes, René often plays Latin music. He might teach his students a little salsa dancing in between silversmithing, or offer them some sangria-flavored soda pop. It’s all designed to put his students at ease for learning.
“I tell them, ‘It’s not a competition; don’t be so tense,’” he says. “You need to relax and forget your problems. If you’re tense, you’ll destroy everything you touch. I tell students that they’re here to enjoy a special experience.”
René works in silver, gold, precious stones, shells, gems and exotic seeds. He likes to focus his work on stones found in Utah.
Jenny says she’s learned to trust her husband and the silversmithing process. But it wasn’t always that way. When they were first married, Jenny says, René was creating jewelry “for fun.” At one point, René was asked to take a neighbor’s mother’s wedding ring, melt it down, and make a pendant.
As René worked on the ring, Jenny couldn’t help but notice the pendant was looking rough — “very rustic,” she says.
“I started having anxiety,” Jenny now says with a laugh. “I didn’t know the process. I thought we were going to have to move. He kept on saying, ‘Trust me,’ and at the end, he’d made a polished, beautiful pendant, and the neighbor loved it.”
Although René Venegas hasn’t yet converted silversmithing and jewelry-making into a full-time job, his wife calls it a “very good part-time position.”
“With jewelry, much of it is your reputation,” she says. “And he’s in the process of building that reputation.”
Sixteen generations seems like an awfully good start to a reputation.