Tulane professor sparked revival in Mexican silver
Beginning in the 1930s, workshops clustered in the mining town of Taxco, Mexico spearheaded a revival in traditional silver craft. At the same time, the artists and artisans working there took a new direction in design that mixed age-old motifs from native cultures with 20th-century Modernism.
The objects and jewelry they produced have become extremely popular with discerning collectors. Each piece provides a hands-on aesthetic appeal when used or worn. In other words, this silver makes daily life a little more beautiful.
Cincinnati Art Galleries offered in 2009 a large group of Mexican silver at auction, many of the pieces from a single collection. Karen Singleton, normally the firm’s art glass expert, said, “This was the first time we had a round of Mexican silver. I accepted the lots because I keep telling them that we could sell more than pottery and glass.”
The pieces were signed by many important makers in this field including William Spratling, Frederick Davis, Hector Aguilar, Los Castillo, and Margot de Taxco.
Part of the sale was devoted to hollowware of silver and mixed metals, including a teapot, coffee pot and chocolate pot by Spratling. There was also a selection of jewelry, some set with Mexican amethyst, malachite and onyx. Singleton told Style Century Magazine, “I appreciate the jewelry. I put some of the necklaces on and was amazed how comfortable and light they were … They contoured themselves to the body.”
Any story of modern Mexican silver begins with the biography of artist and author William Spratling (1900-1967), who served as a catalyst for the industry’s revival. Born in New York state, he was an associate professor of architecture during the 1920s at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he shared a French Quarter apartment with author William Faulkner. He first traveled to Mexico to study architecture, then became enchanted with Taxco, and moved there in 1929.
Drawn by the inspirational scenery and post-revolutionary spirit of the country, many artists and writers lived and worked south of the border. Spratling met American writer Hart Crane, who finished one of his last great poems in Taxco, and became friends with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, for whom he organized an exhibition in New York.
Looking for a way to support himself as an expatriate artist, Spratling noted the city’s silver-mining history and opened a workshop, the Taller de las Delicias [Factory of Delights]. He would later write: “1931 was a notable year in modern Mexican silversmithing. A young silversmith from Iguala named Artemio Navarrete went to Taxco to work for a small silver shop, founded with the germ of an idea, where Artemio, as a nucleus, began to form silversmiths. The present writer, encouraged by his friends Moises Saenz, Dwight Morrow and Diego Rivera, had set up that little shop called Las Delicias.”
The major authority on Spratling’s work is Penny Chittim Morrill Ph.D., who co-authored Mexican Silver: 20th Century Hand-wrought Jewelry & Silver with art dealer Carole Berk. Morrill served as guest curator for the 2002 traveling exhibition “William Spratling and the Mexican Silver Renaissance: Maestros de Plata, “organized by the San Diego Museum of Art.
In her catalog essay, Morrill wrote, “In establishing silver as an artistic medium, what Spratling achieved was a delicate balance, a synthesis of abstract tendencies in the existent folk art tradition and in contemporary fine art, resulting in a visualization of concepts and ideas. As importantly, the Taller de las Delicias, became the paradigm for other silver designers to follow. Las Delicias was a community in which imagination and innovation were fostered and encouraged as the men learned the art of silversmithing while producing for profit. In the hierarchy of the workshop, these silversmiths advanced according to their ability, enthusiasm and technical expertise.”
Many alumni of Spratling’s workshop eventually “graduated” to set up shop on their own. Antonio Castillo, who became a master silversmith there, left in 1939 with his brothers to establish their own successful workshop and store, Los Castillo, on the Plazuela Bernal. Hector Aguilar, who had managed Spratling’s shop, also left in 1939 taking a number of silversmiths with him to found the Taller Borda.
One of the most important silversmiths from an artistic standpoint, Taxco native Antonio Pineda began his career studying painting at the Open Air School of Taxco, established by Japanese artist Tamichi Kitagawa who lived there. After further studies in popular arts and sculpture, he worked as an assistant in Spratling’s workshop and opened his own studio in 1941. A 1944 exhibition in San Francisco led to an early commercial coup, when his entire presentation of 80 objects was purchased by Gump’s, a prestigious northern California store.
Although he was born into the artistic tradition of Mexico, some of his most successful works of hollowware and jewelry are modernist, even futurist in concept. Most of the silver sought by collectors today was produced during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Spratling continued designing jewelry and serving pieces until his death in a car accident near Taxco in 1967. Books, such as the references mentioned above, are extremely useful because success bred many imitators; popular designs were quickly copied by competitors.
The Taxco output ranges from the dramatic silver necklaces and cuff bracelets of great weight made by Spratling’s workshop to less interesting trinkets made for tourists. Many travelers stopped at the silversmithing town, just off the main road from Mexico City to Acapulco. Pieces they brought back with them turn up at auctions and antique shows throughout the United States. Evaluating the quality and value of vintage Mexican silver takes considerable study. Sterling – 925 parts silver in a thousand – is the standard, but pieces in higher grade silver were made and may be stamped “980” or even “990”.
Penny Morrill said at the time of the Spratling exhibition, “You have to envision this market that was created by Spratling; he created opportunity for thousands. At any one time, there were so many silversmiths working in Taxco itself and a number working in Guadalajara and Mexico City marking their pieces ‘Taxco.’ They were sending their stuff to Taxco because they knew that was where people were buying.”
Morrill noted that even works by unknown makers can have merit: “A lot of the material is in 980 silver, a lot of it is interesting, you put it on, and it makes this incredible statement. I tell people over and over again, if you like it, wear it. If it costs $150, go for it, if it makes you crazy. It may be that one stellar moment when this little silversmith had a wonderful idea.”
Kevin Tierney, head of the silver department at Sotheby’s in New York, has a great admiration for the best Mexican designers and their creations. Tierney said of Spratling, “He woke them up, he combined American know-how with an appreciation of their cultural history. They had the silver, and he provided employment for artisans who needed it. I love the mix – a bit of European style with the motifs of Mexico enhanced by their superb ability to handcraft the silver.”