When we speak of Mexican Jewelry, for the most part, we are speaking of silver jewelry made in Taxco, a beautiful little town, nestled in the hills, about an hour from Mexico City. A town, with a rich silver history, that is a monument to a vision.
As a collector and dealer of Mexican Jewelry and Metalwork, I’m often asked to share my knowledge on collecting, in this fascinating area, to individuals or groups. Most of the questions that I’m asked can be summed up into; ‘Who made it?’, ‘How to date it?’, and ‘What’s it worth?’. Although, these question are valid for collectors and dealers, I, however, never miss the chance to share the history. I can’t hold a wonderfully designed old piece of jewelry in my hand without thinking of its historical significance. I’m often heard saying, “The jewelry that you hold in your hand is evidence of a vision, a desire of a nation that yearned to create an identity that was truly their own.....Mexican.”
For the first couple of decades of the 20th century, Mexico witnessed social upheavals and revolutions, whose participants were attempting to gain monetary justice and create a society that reflected its own cultural heritage, that of its indigenous populations, casting off European influences. This drew the serious and the curious from other countries, predominately Americans, to go and witness, or participate in this evolution.
As in many social upheavals, artists and intellects play an important role by creating works that reflect the desires of that population. Because many Mexicans wanted to create a society that was reflective of their culture, they began to investigate and study their folk arts and crafts traditions, and looked to their pre-Columbian ancestors for inspiration through their finds in the excavations of archeological ruins.
So, how did Taxco become the Silver Capitol on the hill, the destination point for Mexican craftsmen and artists from other countries? By answering this question, you will begin to know about the designers and great tallers that brought about the Taxco Silver Arts and Crafts Movement and why some of these artists are so sought after by collectors.
Here, we enter into the work of two highly sought after designers, who influenced and shaped the future of the silver industry of Taxco; both were Americans. Fred Davis, who was looking for his future and William Spratling, who found a vision. These two visionaries brought together artisans, fostered their talents, defined the imagery and promoted the jewelry that we now recognize as so distinctly Mexican.
In 1910, Mr. Davis went to Mexico City and became the assistant manager for The Sonora News Co., which had the franchise for newspapers and curios in train stations throughout Mexico. Traveling throughout Mexico he studied the folk arts, collected peasant and Indian crafts and bought pre-Columbian antiquities. With enthusiasm and dedication to the Ideals of the Revolution, he, along with other artisans and intellectuals, began to shape the look of Mexican jewelry. For Fred Davis and his artist friends, silver became the metal of expression, and non-precious stones, native to Mexico, replaced precious gems in Mexican jewelry. The motifs used in the new jewelry were inspired by pre-Columbian art and artifacts or symbols that reflected the interests of regional indigenous peoples.
By opening his own gallery, which became a cultural artistic haven, and later, forming a partnership with Sandborn’s Department Store, Fred Davis and associates, were able to promote Mexican artists and craftsmen, enabling the finest craftsmen’s work to be seen and purchased by collectors, both in Mexico and abroad.
William Spratling, considered the Father of Taxco Silver, and the most important collected artisan of Taxco, was an American Professor of Architecture from Tulane University, who went to Mexico to study architecture and write articles concerning Mexico. After several years, he found himself needing a better income and a question, posed by a friend, was offered as a possible solution. Could a languishing silver town revitalize its economy by the crafts it produced? The decades that followed bore witness to the answer.... Yes!
William Spratling’s life reads very much like a mythological hero’s quest. A vision, inspiration, travels, failures, resurrections, and heroic successes. With a handful of silversmiths, in 1931, he opened a little taller in his home, named Las Delicias and through tireless promotion, support from influential friends, and an endless pursuit of excellence, his taller expanded and grew. By 1940, he employed over 300 craftsmen, with companies, both in Mexico and the US, demanding Spratling designs.
William Spratling, throughout his career, stayed devoted to his vision. His designs reflect a Mexican sensibility; looking to pre-Columbian motifs or folk symbols for inspiration. Many of his early works were direct copies of pre-Columbian images, translated into silver. As he matured as an artist, he used these motifs as points of departure for a broader form of expression.
The years that followed the opening of Las Delicias, bore witness to the success of this vision. Many tallers opened their doors and many thousands of artisans came to Taxco to participate in its artistic and financial boom, each contributing to the Mexican style of jewelry in their own unique way.
In his taller, he trained and fostered the talents of many artisans who eventually moved on to start their own tallers. Some of the most important tallers and silversmiths, producing some of the finest examples of Taxco Jewelry, were Hector Aguilar of Borda, Ana Nunez Brilanti of Victoria and Cony shops, Margot van Voorhies Carr of Margot de Taxco, The Castillo Family of Los Castillo, Antonio Pineda, Salvador Teran, Sigi Pineda, Enrique Ledesma, and Matilde Poulat of Matl. Although this is not a complete list, as there were many other worthies who created wonderful works, and some unknown artists, as well, these individuals were major contributors to this artistic movement and key in developing the look we now know as Mexican Jewelry.
HECTOR AGUILAR was one of the first artisans to leave Spratling’s shop, opening his Borda Taller in 1939. His jewelry reflects his own ingenious design sensibility, inventing new and innovative elements in the mechanical aspects of his designs. Although, his early works drew heavily from pre-Columbian motifs, he soon expanded his designs to include bolder, more sophisticated melding of stones and silver.
During WWII, Taxco saw an even greater economic boom. The US placed a ban on white metals and the department stores looked to Mexico, predominately Taxco, to furnish them with luxury items made in Silver. The Borda Taller played a very important role in meeting these demands. Hector’s shop grew and expanded, housing many artistic operations.
The LOS CASTILLO mark pays tribute to a family of artistic integrity and ingenuity. Antonio and his brothers also established their Los Castillo Taller in 1939. They became known as innovators, never afraid to try new materials and experiment with new techniques. Many of the techniques that are now synonymous with Mexican silver, such as married metals, divorced metals, inlayed work, feathers and silver, just to name a few, were introduced by Los Castillo. When looking at any Los Castillo piece the love of their culture is unmistakable. Images from Mixtec and Aztec art, references to nature and folk art dominate their work.
MARGOT VAN VOORHIES CARR, of Margot de Taxco, an American, once married to Antonio Castillo, and the first designer for the newly formed Los Castillo Taller, started her own venture in 1948. Her work is a wonderful marriage of her passion for Japanese Block Prints, nature, pre-Columbian art and folk art. The sense of motion and form are always evident in her work, whether in silver, copper or enamel. Her shop produced some of the finest examples of champleve’ in the world.
VICTORIA ANA NUNEZ de BRILANTI of the Victoria and Cony Tallers, built her reputation on a dedication to perfection. She, along with the Castillo family, is credited with the innovation of Metales Casados, (married metals). In many of her designs you will see her use of pre-Columbian techniques, such as inlayed stones and mixed metals. Her work is always of the highest quality with themes that reflect her heritage in pre-Columbian images and folk themes.
In the late 1940’s, her dedication in maintaining the quality of the silver work being produced in Mexico, prompted her to join with Spratling and Antonio Castillo in petitioning the Mexican Government to initiate the government assay mark, insuring a high content of silver.
MATILDE POULAT of the Matl Taller, has a very distinct pre-Columbian look to her work. Her work is heavily encrusted with native stones, silver wire embellishments and cascabeles. The images that primarily inspired her jewelry had spiritual or symbolic references, hearkening back to the archeological finds of Monte Alban.
ANTONIO PINEDA worked for Spratling in the 40’s, and branched out to create his own Taller. By the 50’s, Taxco was well established as an international silver center. The influences of the international styles inspired a generation of silversmiths, in Taxco, to incorporate some modernist looks into their jewelry. Antonio experimented with these influences and developed what he called a true Mexican Modernist look. Most of his work is bold, weighty with ingenious stone work.
SIGI PINEDA, part of the 50’s inspired artisans, brings delight to many collectors with his biomorphic shaped jewelry and his modernist treatment in design. His use of simplified shapes, clean surfaces and surprising overlapping planes is often called ‘The Sigi Look’.
SALVADOR TERAN, worked for Spratling and his cousin Antonio Castillo. His work includes experimentation of pre-Columbian techniques, such as tile work. He contributed to the Modernist work being produced in Mexico with his biomorphic shaped sculptural pieces and his industrial themes.
ENRIQUE LEDESMA, one of the 1950’s inspired designers, had a sense of sculptural elegance. His work is known for its simplified curved shapes, often done in carved obsidian or other native stones. The silver and stones are melded with such precision that they become one.
These artists, along with other notables, such as Bernice Goodspeed, Hubert Harmon, Valentin Vidaurreta, and Los Ballesteros, are generally the most sought after, by collectors, today. Their work is of the highest quality and maintains artistic integrity in the Mexican tradition.
Taxco still has a strong silver industry, with buses unloading tourists to shop for silver. Sigi Pineda, Los Castillo, the Cony Shop and a few lesser known artisans are still producing quality works, but most of the jewelry now sold in Taxco is only reminiscent of the work that was created by the original visionaries. That vision was to create something wholly Mexican as a monument to its ancient past.
First Printing, "Taxco Silver Jewelry: A Monument to a Vision" Vintage Fashion and Costume Jewelry Magazine, Summer 2000
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