The three-month-old shop DCopper, at 1017 Valencia St., has its roots in Santa Clara del Cobre, in Michoacán Mexico.
It’s there, said DCopper’s owner, Andrea Vargas, that her grandmother, Felicitas Ornelas de Paz, snuck into the forge at a time when only men shaped copper.
It would not be the first time that Ornelas de Paz ignored the rules. In one generation, she managed to build a family business in copper. While Ornelas de Paz managed the fabrication and ran the business, her husband — along with Vargas’s grandfather — was on the road selling the output: copper bowls, pans and artisanal goods.
The business grew. Soon, every family member worked in Felicitas Ornelas de Paz’s dream, and their products were sold not only all over Mexico but eventually in Europe as well. The store on Valencia Street is their first in the United States.
“Now, when the family gets together, Felicitas Ornelas de Paz is the center of everything,” Vargas said.
Vargas came to San Francisco seven years ago and attended City College, where she still takes jewelry classes. “I open my shop every day around 5 p.m., after work,” she said, smiling at her predicament. “I have regular job, because I have to eat.”
Vargas knows each piece in the shop — from its beginning to the finished shape. The region’s mines closed many years ago, so the base copper is recovered from all over Mexico.
Vargas said she can look at any piece and immediately tell by whom it was crafted. The shop displays a variety of sizes and shapes. The artistry might be a bathtub or necklace, or anything in between.
Many of the designs at DCopper have been inspired by customers. A series of handsome mugs began with no more than a customer’s sketch.
Vargas shares her grandmother’s resolve and perspective, and readily admits that copper is her life. “This is how we make our living,” said Vargas. “Copper has provided a means and inspiration for four generations of my family. I want my children to be a part.”
Everything at DCopper is handmade. Each piece carries the spirit of the person who hammered it into shape, said Vargas.
The reclaimed metal is cast into sheets. The sheets are heated and hand-hewn into beautiful and functional shapes. During the shaping process, the piece is returned to the wood fire to be reheated and worked. Each piece can make as many as 500 trips into the fire. The temperature of the fire gives each piece a unique patina. Colors can be bright red, green, brown and almost black. “This cannot be achieved by a machine,” said Vargas.
Vargas’ Valencia Street shop is another in a series of stores belonging to Ornelas de Paz ‘s grandchildren, but it is the first in the United States. Although her father insisted that all of his children attend college, they eventually return to their roots in hand-smithed copper art.
It’s difficult not to feel the presence of Ornelas de Paz on Valencia Street. If she were there, she would surely say, “This is our life. This is my family’s living.”