At his darkest moment, this artisan took the biggest risk of his life

Julio Eugenio Sanchez Bernuy clearly remembers the first time he saw a finished piece of art. At that moment, he said to himself, ‘Julio, you are going to make beautiful things.’ The rest of his life was about making that dream come true.

Julio sits at his workman’s bench, turns the camera, and begins to tell a story that traverses his country’s violent past, his hopes and aspirations, and the long road to his incredible success.

“I remember a childhood that was chaotic, without a direction and with a great probability of losing myself along the way. I was carried away by the games of a neglected and mischievous child who was trying to fill his time, to live day to day without thinking too much. A boy surrounded by the local fiestas so typical of the town.

Puente Piedra today

“I went to school but I began to spend less time in the classroom and more time in the street. When the town celebrated with carnivals and fiestas, it was a terrible distraction. For a long time, I was a little scamp and went back to school with my uniform torn and dirty. I caused so much uproar and disturbance that the director had no choice but to call my parents and scold me for behaving so badly for my age.

“My parents spent a lot of time working. My father was an auto mechanic and worked in a garage. My mother and grandmother looked after the home and were the leaders there, doing all the housework and taking care of my five siblings. It was hard work! My grandmother quickly realized what was happening and she decided to send me to the capital with an uncle, one of my mother’s brothers. I didn’t want to go. But my grandmother believed that moving to the city would change my future for the better.

“A long time afterward, I realized that she’d made the best decision. What she did for me was priceless and I’ll be grateful to her for the rest of my life. Who knows where I could have ended up?

Puente Piedra Aerial View

So at the age of ten, I left for Lima, sad and far from my family, my friends, and everything I was used to. I felt a lot of nostalgia. I began a new life with many chapters to write.

“Like every new beginning, it was hard to grow up in a new life with a new family. My uncle adopted me like his own son as he earnestly took on the responsibility of raising me. They say that everything arrives at the right moment and, with my uncle, it was no exception. Everything happens for a reason, I’m very sure of that.

“The loneliness, the nostalgia, the dreams – they all swirled together in my mind and came to life at night. There were moments when I wanted to move back to the country, to the crazy and disorderly life I had there. But then I found myself trying to create a solid foundation for the future. I was studying and working very hard so my parents would be proud of me and I felt a tremendous obligation to leave a good example for my five younger brothers and sisters.

“I learned a lot of things when I found myself living alone with my uncle and his family. I learned about responsibility, taking care of myself and my things. I learned about respect and tolerance, about work. I learned that things were not so simple, that life in the street was really tough, and that earning a few cents could take a lot of time and effort. It was as elemental as the laws of nature where only the strongest survive.

“In my search for a trade or a task, so I could earn a few tips, go to school and cover my daily expenses, I found my uncle’s workshop. It turned out that the man who had taken me into his home was a great master artisan. He knew all about leather and worked with it very well. When I saw an artform I could develop, it had quite an impact on me. I still wasn’t aware that working with leather could result in beautiful and useful designs.

“I was 12 years old and still quite young but I knew immediately that this was the art for me.

“My last three years of school were intense. I went to classes in the morning but then changed to night-time classes and spent all my free time in the leather workshop. I’d use scraps and draw motifs on them. I wanted to master this craft with determination, dedication and a passion I couldn’t describe. I simply found myself caught up in this art in a way I never imagined. I began to carve and draw by hand and perfected my techniques little by little. By the time I was 15, I was considered an artisan. It’s not easy to perfect the art of tooled leather.

“I began memorizing each design and, to this day, I have those images in my memory. If anyone asked me to create a specific design at any given moment, I could do it without the need to look at it on paper.

“During the period of terrorism in Peru, all the businesses were paralyzed. I left my leatherwork without hope and with all my dreams frustrated. I looked for ways to get ahead. I got my driver’s license and drove a taxi but, almost seven years later when I thought I’d finally achieved some stability, the business went broke.

“By then, I was 28 years old and had a young son. I found myself without a job and I feared the worst, as everything was really bad.

“I felt despair, as though my dreams and illusions were lost and all my years of work were in vain. I almost gave in to feelings of failure. Facing our economic problems was the worst part. I spent many very tough days of need and in anguish to survive.

“After many years, my family helped me see the creative light within me. They’re always my source of inspiration so I didn’t waste any more time before looking for a way to become involved with leather once again. I contacted my uncle and proposed that we work together, something we’d already known how to do well. So together, we came to a workshop on the outskirts of Lima in a district called Puente Piedra. It was far from the city and there weren’t many access roads to get there. The streets were unpaved and few sectors had even the most basic of services. Today, Puente Piedra has become one of the most densely populated industrial zones in the capital.

“For a long time, I worked with a family doing the embossed details of their designs. Then, one-day NOVICA visited us. We discovered NOVICA in one of the many craft fairs we attended. They quickly became interested in my work, as I was the one doing the handcrafted motifs and was a key person in the process. They suggested I develop my own collection depicting Andean culture and life in each unique design.

“Once I decided to craft my own designs, I felt surer of myself than ever. I’d been working in tooled leather since I was 12 and had spent years working hard to earn the title of ‘master artisan.’ I started working under my own name as my personal brand and found the courage to work for myself and for my family.

“My art is both a legacy and a tradition handed down over generations by great masters in the art of tooled leather. I was fortunate to learn from one of them and that has made me what I am today.

Colonial Wood Leather Box, “Colonial Mystique”

$132.99

Colonial Leather Jewelry Box, “Spanish Heritage”

$189.99

Colonial Leather Jewelry Box , “Colonial Legacy”

$162.99

Colonial Leather Jewelry Chest, “Colonial Keeper”

$119.99

Embossed Leather Chest Box, “Classic Inspiration”

$99.99

Leather Embossed Cedar Wood, “Inca Sun God”

$58.99

“I feel proud of my work and of building a home when I had started with absolutely nothing. I have put a lot of hard work and commitment into giving my family and children the best I could.

“My work is very delicate. It takes a lot of effort and dedication. Above all, it takes practice. I find the motivation I need in my family. I think a child should try to go farther in life than his or her parents were able to and this is why I want to do so. I want my children to become the best they can be and achieve everything they set their hearts on.

In Julio’s words:

“I want the next generations to find that which they love with passion in their hearts. I want them to perpetuate our traditions and share them with the world because this will be the only way to transcend time.”

“For me, working at doing what I love is an art that is captured in my mind and in my heart for the rest of my days.”

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