Our Story: The Beginning of a Dream.
Maria Herlinda De La Garza Alpaca Breeder, Founder, Head designer at Quintessence alpacas
I am pleased to have you visiting our alpaca collection today. I would like to take this opportunity to tell about how and why I became involved with this magnificent animal.
In 1995 I had lived and worked in the United States for 16 years. I was happy and successful. By then I was Vice President of a young company that exported private label groceries to Japan, China, Russia and Singapore. Charles C. Fitzmorris Jr., the owner of Star Traders, was a worldwide known entrepreneur and he was my mentor.
I started as his administrative assistant, and believe me it was not an easy task. Charlie Fitzmorris, a Chicago an of Irish descent and a 1933 Princeton graduate, was voted to be the second most successful person of his generation after John Firestone Jr.
When I met him he was already 72 years old, and running a worldwide corporation with offices in England, Belgium, Spain, etc. His customers were the largest grocery chains in the world, starting in the USA going through Europe, Japan and all the way to Australia and South Africa.
He was like an army--he kept me on my toes for many years. He also guided me and taught me everything about the grocery business. During all those years I grew personally and professionally and became the vice-president of his latest company, Star Traders. For the last four years, I have been the legal representative of his last company, Willow Lake Alpaca International, Inc. Ltda. in Chile.
Everybody that knew Charlie Fitzmorris knew that he had a special love for a South American animal, "The Alpaca." Charlie had purchased 12 alpacas in 1982 and for the next 10 years he dreamed of becoming the largest alpaca rancher in the USA. For many reasons known to all of us, his dream was not a simple one. Even though he had the economic power to achieve this dream, he had to deal with all the sanitary importation regulations. Ten years passed until one day in December of 1994, a friend of his called to advise him that the United States Department of Agriculture had opened the doors to Chilean alpacas
Within a week he had formed Willow Lake Alpacas International, Inc. and had his importation permit for 330 alpacas. What he did not have anymore was his health and the energy to go and get the alpacas himself. He needed somebody that he could trust completely; importing alpacas is complicated, expensive and almost 100% cash based. I was lucky to have enjoyed his total confidence. So this is how and why I came in contact with Chilean alpacas for the first time.
I was told that I was going to be the administrator of a three-month project. Little did we know about importing alpacas. During those days the importation rules were even more complicated than they are now. Charlie sent me to Chile with a team of three veterinarians who were experts of alpacas, an electrical generator, the latest ultrasound machine, tents, sleeping bags and 20 cases of equipment. It felt like, and was, a real expedition to the Andean Mountains.
This is the native land of the Alpaca.
To describe in a few words the beauty and the roughness of the Andean Mountains and that of the Altiplano is simply impossible. I can only tell you that it is as beautiful and serene as it is extreme on your body and on your mind. To work above 4,500 meters high is not only dangerous and exhausting for your body, it is also a soul searching experience. I was suddenly in a totally different world. We were in touch on a daily basis with the Quechuan and the Aymara Indians, the keepers and owners of all the camelids that inhabit the Andes.
We learned that the alpacas, llamas and vicunas co-exist in harmony with the Quechuas and Aymaras; the altiplano or the Andes highlands belong to all of them. You can see an Aymara run at 4,800 meters of altitude. And believe me if I had tried I would have died in probably 15 minutes or so. The air is so thin that your heart is working at double the rate.
Well in any event I want to tell you that what we thought was going to be three months became 13 months; yes it took us 13 months to export Charlie’s alpacas from Chile to the USA. Unfortunately Charlie did not survive to see his dream accomplished.
He was 85 years old at the time of his death, so you can see he was already old when he started this project. You might wonder why he would embark in such a project at 85 years of age. Well Charlie did everything his way. He was the ultimate optimist, and he always succeeded at what he wanted. This time he did too. In his memory, all of his alpacas came to his beloved Willow Lake Farm, in Lake Forest, Illinois, and a year later we looked for and found fabulous homes for each and every one of them.
As you might imagine, I did not know anything about alpacas, or any livestock for that matter, at the time of my involvement in this venture. So I was plunged into a 330 alpacas project at full speed. I can only tell you that every minute there was something new for me to learn. I went from administrator to alpaca rancher overnight. If I tell you that the experience of the first few months was a pleasant one, I would be lying! I could not foresee the consequences of moving this beautiful animal from 4,800 meters to sea level and not only that, from the I Region of Chile to the V Region 1,800 miles away, in less than a month.
The experts that had been with me selecting the animals and taking care of the emergencies were gone. They had finished their part and had now left me in Arica with 330 alpacas. And I must tell you that the transportation and the required blood testing had a dramatic impact on the alpaca’s survival instincts. Just two days after we arrived in Arica, the females started to abort; the fetuses were only two and three months old. We suddenly had lots of premature babies. As you know, an alpaca will abort her cria if she feels that her life is in danger. I quickly realized that they were as fragile as they were beautiful.
I was alone and in charge of a brand new company 7,000 miles away from home. I was the first woman in Chile to direct an alpaca project; it used to be men's territory. I had 330 alpacas and 50 babies, and believe me I was nervous. I was actually desperate! I wanted to do my best, but the fact that I did not know anything about this animal was there every minute, every step of the way. I had to hire a Chilean veterinarian, who fortunately was not only a good veterinarian, he had experience with alpacas and was a hands-on doctor. I also called USA veterinarians on almost a daily basis. We had babies struggling to survive, skinny animals, pneumonia, etc. Fortunately for me I had access to the best of everything, and I did not have to worry about the amount of money it would require to succeed. After all, these were Charlie’s babies and they had to be treated as such.
So in a few days, and with the help of several veterinarians, a feed formula was developed for the Willow Lake girls. Days would go by before they considered tasting it. We actually had to put it in their mouths. They had never seen it, they had never eaten it, so they were not interested in it.
My problem was that I had to increase their weight quickly because with all the stress they had lost some weight, and we had bought them at the time of one of the worst droughts that Chile had ever seen. Nourishment was our first priority as 1,000 other things rapidly became priorities too. All of this, of course, was multiplied by 330, plus 50 babies.
To make this long story short, I must tell you that even though it was the toughest project I had ever embarked on, it is also the one that gave me the biggest sense of accomplishment. And the most important thing of all, it is the one that got me hooked for life.
After Charlie's death his alpacas were all sold in the United States but I had fallen in love with Alpacas and their amazing fiber.
I love the alpaca and everything that we obtain from them. Their fleece has become my passion and after I separated from Willow Lake, I founded my own company Quintessence & Co.
You should know that this new company. Quintessence & Co. is where the fun part is. I design and produce incredibly fashionable first quality garments. We have coats, jackets, dresses, scarves, shawls, gloves, hats, purses, Chanel style suits, business suits, fun and relaxing suits too. However, even though my designs were well accepted in the international market, I did not understand why the commercial fiber offer by the textile industry did not match the natural softness that I had experience directly on the alpacas. Therefore my search for the true alpaca regal softness became my mission, our goal and the reason that I founded parallel to our fashion company; The Center for Better Genetics and Advance Reproduction.
After 20 years I am proud to say that:
We are the only (family owned) global alpaca company in the world-vertically integrated.
We have exported to more than 16 countries,
Some of the best and most famous alpaca farms in the United States, Europe and Asia have started with our genetics and fashions.
We have achieved alpaca fiber microns as low as 12.5 microns.
And we are proud to say we have exported the largest exports in history of Chile, our export to China on May 2015 of 1200 alpacas.
I invite you to browse through these web pages, and to contact us if you wish to be part of this wonderful and professionally run industry. If you are already involved in alpacas, contact us if you are in the market for fantastic colors and new genes, or just wish to buy something to sell down the line.
Hoping to hear from you soon.
Maria Herlinda De La Garza