Coppersmiths and tinkers

The Romani term for coppersmiths and tinkers is kakavjári (kakaví – Greek: "cauldron"). Since most of the terms that relate to trades working with metal derive from Greek, Armenian or Persian, it is supposed that smithery has evolved and become one of the most significant professions of the Roma only in the course of their migration. There were and still are numerous coppersmiths and cauldron-makers in many Roma communities; their best-known representatives are the Kalderaš [Vlach Roma].

Their ancestors spent five hundred years as slaves and serfs in the area of today’s Romania. After the abolition of slavery in 1856, many Kalderaš left the principalities of that time and moved towards the west. Today they are spread all over the world.

The Kalderaš belong to those Roma groups who are conscious of their traditions. Their family structures and their social structures, as well as intra-group contact going beyond borders are still intact. Due to these factors the Kalderaš are less affected by assimilation and a looming threat to their culture, unlike many other Roma groups. The strong group cohesion and a wide social network lead to relatively high independence, (in terms of the negative economic and social developments in the respective countries), and reduce significantly the risk of impoverishment.

The group and professional denomination Kalderaš derives from the Romanian căldare (cauldron). Until a few decades ago the majority of the Kalderaš worked as travelling coppersmiths and tinkers. The trade was exercised mainly in economic communities (kumpania) and passed on from generation to generation. Apart from Romania, (where even today some Roma communities are working in this field), the Kalderaš over the last decades were forced to give up their traditional profession and change to related professional fields. Industrially produced mass goods have substituted, increasingly, the significantly more expensive craft goods, which has led to the coppersmiths trade and repairing cauldrons as being no longer profitable. Also the assimilation politics in the former communist states of Eastern Europe contributed to the fact that many Kalderaš lost their work.

Previously, the coppersmiths and tinkers fulfilled an important function in the economic life of the villages. Non-Roma had to rely on the Roma passing several times a year in order to repair their pots full of holes and to make cauldrons. The copper cauldrons were used for cooking but also as distillery devices (kazana) for the production of spirits. It was their main work to repair the cauldrons full of holes, to double the used floors and to cover the inside of the pots with tin.

In the warm months of the year the Kalderaš travelled in their horse-drawn wagons from village to village, and stayed in one place for several days. They mostly prepared tents to sleep in; in front of the tent they cooked, ate and worked. The women and girls went to all the inhabitants of the village and asked whether they had cauldrons and pots that needed to be repaired. The gathered cooking devices were brought to the camp. After the men had repaired them the women brought them back to their owners and bartered a price, which often was paid in kind with other goods.

The production of a new cauldron was a very profitable but also delicate affair. In order not to spoil expensive raw materials, the smiths would not make any mistake. The exact working together of all persons involved in the work was essential for the production of a copper cauldron. In contrast to warm smiths the copper plates can be brought (formed) to the right form in the course of a cold procedure by using special chasing hammers thanks to the high elasticity of the metal. The Kalderaš were experts in the chasing technique and contributed considerably to spreading this artistic cold hammer smithery in Europe.

The finished cauldron was warmed up over glowing charcoal and tinned in the inside. The temperature of the charcoal was to be regulated exactly by using bellows (pišot). If the temperature was too low the tin did not join the copper, if it was too high the cauldron melted. On the outer walls (prašav [rib]) and on the edge (krlo [neck]), handles (vastari – derived from vas [hand]) were applied if required, with or without decoration (zlag [earring]).

The Kalderaš Rom Dragan Jevremović, head of the Vienna Roma association Romano Centro, is one of the few Austrian Kalderaš who still knows how to apply the traditional craft techniques. His father taught him the profession and he worked as a coppersmith and tinker in the former Yugoslavia until the beginning of the 1970’s. Until a few years ago Dragan Jevremović produces utensils such as doorplates and flower vases but also artistic items such as violins and hats.


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Image Printable version
Image O Dragan Jevremović mothol, so o krpač kerel – Dragan Jevremović on the tinker’s job
Image Dragan Jevremović forging copper
Image The making of cauldrons by the Kalderaš
Dragan Jevremović working on a copper boiler (Vienna), 2003
Copper and brass items manufactured by Dragan Jevremović (Vienna), 2003
Romni offers galvanized cooking kettles on the weekly market of Prizren (Kosovo [Yugoslavia]), 1982
Coppersmith at work (Choisy le Roi [France]), 1911