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.
Mexican silver dinner bell, circa 1960, marked ‘William Spratling, Taxco Mexico.’ Heritage Auctions image
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, explained, “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 hollow ware 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.
Large silver bracelet with malachite stones, marked Spratling Made in Mexico. Courtesy Treadway Gallery.
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 (see sidebar) and opened a workshop, the Taller de las Delicias [Factory of Delights]. He would later write: “Nineteen-thirty-one 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.”
Not all Mexican silver was marked by the maker. This 4 3/8-inch-wide silver cuff bracelet with a traditional feathered-serpent pattern is stamped 950 for the silver content. Courtesy Cincinnati Art Galleries.
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 taller and shop, 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 with his family. 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. Examine the sculptural shapes of the circa-1960 tea service design, illustrated here as a set which sold in a 2005 Sotheby’s Modernism auction for $39,000. Morrill and Berk commented on this design in Mexican Silver: “Antonio Pineda has molded and manipulated the material to effectively convey an aesthetic idea. The sugar and creamer and tea pot are no longer simply utilitarian vessels, but have taken on the qualities of works of art.”