A Life Well Travelled

Patrick Mavros

Issue 2 · Summer 2015
· Images Benjamin McMahon

Silversmith and traveller Patrick Mavros talks to Oliver Bennett about sculpting animals, his love of Africa, and the importance of great service

Issue 2 · Summer 2015
· Images Benjamin McMahon

Silversmith and traveller Patrick Mavros talks to Oliver Bennett about sculpting animals, his love of Africa, and the importance of great service

On a long table on London’s Fulham Road is a vivid scene from the African savannah: a herd of elephants, trunks flaring, charging beneath spreading acacia trees. Yes, it’s all in silver and Lilliputian – these tuskers are ten inches high – but it’s a real spectacle, as the cooing of visitors testifies.

This is the centrepiece of the key outpost of Zimbabwean silversmith Patrick Mavros, who for 30-odd years has made jewellery and sculpture based on wildlife: more than 200,000 pieces in total. Look around the magical store and you’ll find silver gorillas, manta rays, splaylegged giraffes and lions, all amid displays of old-time Africana: ostrich eggs, ceiling fans, game photographs, tribal spears. It’s like walking into a luxury safari camp, and Mavros makes the perfect host. Leonine in open-necked shirt, cowboy boots and crocodile-skin belt, you wouldn’t want to contradict this man of the veld. “We’re about creating an atmosphere with Zimbabwean hospitality,” he says. “We only attract nice people.”

“Travel stimulates me. I love good receptionists, maître d’s, doormen. We travellers love to be welcomed by name”

The Mavros mothership is a farm and shop, 30km from Harare, where the bulk of the silverwork is made against a backdrop of panoramic plains, upon which animals roam. The Fulham shop is run by one of Mavros’s four sons, Alexander. There’s also Forbes, who runs a Mavros workshop in Mauritius – hence the manta rays and sea urchins – and jewellers Patrick and Benjamin, who recently went to learn how to make puukko knives in the forests of Finland. Theirs is truly a family affair – and doing rather well. Mavros’s client list includes JK Rowling, Sharon Stone and Bruce Springsteen. He’s made a silver partridge for the King of Spain. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge like his work: Kate owns some Mavros crocodile earrings and Prince George received a Mavros piece for his christening. “We have fascinating clients, from all walks of life,” says Mavros. Anyway, it’s all good for the peripatetic silversmith: working between Harare, London and Mauritius, and all points between. “I love travel,” he says. “It still excites me.”

Mavros explored a lot when growing up in “Zim”. “From an early age, I roamed,” he says. “My father was a rural doctor and our cook, Welo Piri, came from Malawi. His speciality was the carving of dancing masks.” Welo would take Mavros out to find guinea fowl feathers and wood to carve. “He’d use the masks in tribal dances. I wish I’d kept one.”

Introduced to this extraordinary world, Mavros was rapt. “Can you imagine? I was exposed to this dancing, which scared the hell out of everyone else. This did away with any fear, and gave me an inquiring mind.” Mavros was weakened by polio at the age of six but, a buccaneer even then, turned this to his advantage. “Because of polio I was light,” he says. “So I became a very good tree climber. I could get 100 feet up and see into nests.” He started to make watercolours of eagles – “It was a great comfort to find a skill, because I wasn’t good at school” – and developed his powers of observation.

 

Then Mavros began to explore beyond Zimbabwe’s borders: “When I was 12 I went to Botswana, which I loved – the biggest skies in the world, the Makgadikgadi salt pan, the pink flamingoes, the bushmen stalking antelope with bows and arrows.” And there was much to explore in Zim itself: the Hwange National Park, the teak forests, the Kalahari desert. “And the mighty Zambezi river. When I was a kid it was darkest Africa, where you died from malaria or got mauled by lions.”

After this blissful childhood, Mavros became a baker and a soldier. “For the whole of the 1970s I was in a war.” Demobbed, he began to carve, his wife Catja becoming his muse. “I made her some earrings in ivory,” he recalls. After several one-offs, Mavros began working in silver, using lost-wax casting. “It’s an ancient process, from the Middle East,” he says. “My story is that a conquering warrior cast all his loot into a solid-gold heart, and gave it to a princess.”

In the 1980s, he began selling. “I knew Germans liked hunting,” he says. “So I made sculptures of warthogs and took them to a hunting fair in Dortmund.” They were snapped up. “I thought, ‘Bloody hell.’ I made more; hippos and earrings. It worked again.” In 1984, Mavros set off for Game Conservation International in Texas with four trunks full of animal sculptures and belt buckles. “I didn’t have a penny, so I stayed in a cheap motel and received people in the Marriott’s reception area as if I was staying there,” he laughs. He met the Governor of Texas and had a breakthrough when a sculpture sold well in an auction. “So I had a pair of cowboy boots made and bought an Abe Cortez cowboy hat.” And he started to build a database, which he now says is one of his “greatest assets”.

Mavros pieces are made out of “97.5 per cent silver, balanced with copper – as pure as you can get.” They carry a Zimbabwean assay number and a UK hallmark. “We buy our silver from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and have done for 30 years,” he says. And being pure, the material ages well. “See that buffalo?” he asks. “In 25 years’ time, give it a little rub and it’ll look even better.”

Over the years, Mavros has criss-crossed the globe. “Travel stimulates me,” he says. “I love good receptionists, maître d’s, doormen. They’re the unsung people who are so important. We travellers love to be welcomed by name.” And Mavros himself greets browsers personally. “It’s a privilege that they walk through my door. I like good service and [he glowers] hate bad service.”

He remains impressively intrepid. “I like exciting places,” he continues. “I have great friends in Pakistan: they are incredibly hospitable and it’s such a colourful place. I love Lahore, Karachi, the deserts of Sindh.” He’s been to Russia on hunts, walked at Lake Baikal and in the Altai Mountains. “Hunters and fishermen – the guy pulling a mule, the fellow with the yak – always have a lot to yarn about. They’ll talk and share their meagre meals with you. They can be fascinating.”

He draws when travelling, and loves to fly. “It still excites me to be above the clouds. It’s from my days as a soldier, when I recall finding anthills and getting up on them, to think clearly above the fog of war.”

The Mavros clan takes a yearly African safari with friends. “We have it in August and September for two to four weeks, on the Zambezi river. We eat meat and sit around the fire and tell stories. Safari is a great key to unlocking our country. You’ll find everyone friendly. Everyone’s keen to help. There are thousands of young people who want it to work, and they have pride.” Zimbabwe’s back, and Mavros and his farm are among its grandest attractions.

PATRICK MAVROS’S TRAVEL LIST

 

Most exciting destination

Karachi, Pakistan. It’s the impact of a completely different world, full of hospitality, danger and colour.

Most memorable meal

Again in Pakistan, at a fort in what used to be North-West Frontier Province. We had an amazing meal of duck, lamb and partridge within the old walls.

First travel memory

Aged eight, sitting with my three sisters on the back seat of our parents’ Vauxhall in East Africa. We crested a hill and saw the Indian Ocean for the first time and shouted, “We’re at the seaside!”

Favourite hotel

So many, but I love the Mark Hotel in New York, near Central Park, and the Milestone in London. I appreciate great service.

Favourite destination

Zimbabwe. I love the dryness of Matabeleland. When I breathe the parched air, and look up and see a blackfoot eagle… that’s everything to me.

The place you love to return to

I love returning to London. For me, it’s the centre of the world.

 

 

Top of your must-do list

Japan. I have been greatly influenced by Japanese netsuke and okimono traditions – their detail and perfection. But I haven’t yet been.

Must-have piece of luggage

I use Red Oxx’s Air Boss – brilliantly designed, durable and acceptable anywhere, it’s the perfect weekend bag.

Best packing tip

Eagle Creek’s Pack-It System. It’s essential kit.

Your go-everywhere item

Too many things: binoculars, cigar case, torch, car charger for phone. Also a length of nylon rope, ziplocks and – absolutely essential if you lose a padlock – four cable ties.

Favourite travel writer

My heroine, Nina Wennersten. She’s one of Condé Nast’s African travel specialists and she is the business – totally committed to African tourism, with an inexhaustible desire to help.

Favourite landscape

The Mana Pools National Park on the Zambezi river is an amazing World Heritage Site filled with baobab trees, mahogany and ebony, fish eagles, hippopotamuses and buffalo.

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