The Rich History and Challenges of Black Clay Pottery in Mexico

Discover the rich history and unique qualities of Mexican black pottery - a distinct style of pottery iconic of Oaxaca. Learn about its origins, distinctive features, and the challenges faced by artisans due to the scarcity of raw materials.

The Rich History and Challenges of Black Clay Pottery in Mexico
Pitcher with handles. Artisans in San Bartolo Coyotepec create black clay pottery using highly plastic clay found only in the region. Images by SEP

Mexico has a rich history of traditional pottery-making that dates back thousands of years. One such pottery style that has gained popularity in recent years is the iconic black clay, also known as Mexican black pottery. This style of pottery is primarily associated with the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec in the state of Oaxaca.

In this article, we will explore the origins of black clay pottery, the unique qualities of this pottery style, and the challenges faced by artisans in the present day due to the scarcity of raw materials used to create this art form.

Origins of Black Clay Pottery

The history of black clay pottery in Mexico dates back to the pre-Columbian era when the Zapotec and Mixtec peoples of the Central Valleys created domestic tableware made of clay. This pottery style was primarily used for everyday purposes such as storing water, bottling mezcal, and other similar activities. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that the artisans of San Bartolo Coyotepec began to experiment with clay to create more refined pieces.

In 1950, Rosa Real Mateo de Nieto, a successor of the pottery artisans, experimented with the clay in her workshop and discovered that the color and shine of the pieces could be changed by polishing and firing them at a slightly lower temperature. This discovery marked the birth of black clay pottery, which quickly became the most popular style of pottery among collectors of Mexican handicrafts.

Unique Qualities of Black Clay Pottery

Black clay pottery is distinct from other pottery styles due to its unique appearance and properties. The pottery is made from a type of clay found only in the San Bartolo Coyotepec region of Oaxaca. This clay is known for its high iron content, which gives it a distinct black color when fired at high temperatures. The clay is also highly plastic, making it easy to work with and shape.

One of the defining characteristics of black clay pottery is its smooth, polished surface. This effect is achieved by polishing the clay with a smooth stone before firing it. The polishing creates a smooth, shiny surface that gives the pottery a unique texture and appearance.

Black clay pottery is also known for its durability and strength. Due to the high iron content of the clay, the pottery is resistant to chipping and breaking, making it a popular choice for everyday use.

Tibor with floral motifs. Piece of black clay modeled and burnished, San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca.
Tibor with floral motifs. The smooth, polished surface of black clay pottery gives it a unique texture and appearance that is highly sought after by collectors of Mexican handicrafts.

Challenges Faced by Artisans

Despite the popularity of black clay pottery, artisans in San Bartolo Coyotepec face significant challenges due to the scarcity of raw materials used to create this pottery style. The clay used to create black clay pottery is found only in a small area of Oaxaca, and the deposits of clay are becoming increasingly difficult to access.

As a result, the cost of the raw materials needed to create black clay pottery has increased significantly in recent years. Artisans are also facing competition from mass-produced imitations of black clay pottery, which are cheaper and easier to produce but lack the unique qualities of authentic black clay pottery.

To address these challenges, artisans in San Bartolo Coyotepec are exploring alternative sources of clay and experimenting with new firing techniques to create similar effects. However, these efforts require significant investment and are not always successful.

The Process of Making Barro Negro

The process of making barro negro pieces starts with the extraction of clay, which is ground and sieved. The piece is then created and left to dry for several days. Polishing is done with smooth-edged river stones or quartz, giving the final product its distinctive shine. Firing is done by blocking the entrance of oxygen to the kiln, which reduces the atmosphere and results in a black color. The barro negro technique is also used in Chihuahua and Jalisco.

Oaxaca's Exotic Black Clay Pottery

Located in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, San Bartolo Coyotepec is famous for its exquisite black clay pottery known as "barro negro." The craft has been practiced for centuries and was traditionally used to transport mezcal. Today, the pieces produced by local artisans are mainly used for decorative purposes.

Over time, the potters of Coyotepec have adapted to changing times, and their production skills have found new applications. Currently, the community has two markets that group artisan workshops characterized by creative imagination, a mixture of different perspectives, ways of working, and economic options. Ceramics production is not only a practice that forges diverse identities but also an important source of income for its creators.

The clay used to make black clay pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec has special properties that give the final product its unique black color and crystalline sound. The indigenous forms and techniques used to create the pottery are combined with reducing the oxygen in the kiln's combustion chamber at the end of the firing process. This technique transforms the presence of red iron oxide, an inherent compound of the clay, into black iron oxide, providing the wonderful black color of the pieces.

The ceramic works of San Bartolo Coyotepec reflect the collective imagination of its inhabitants. The strokes, figures, symbols, and graphic concepts reflect the environment that surrounds them, including stars, flora, fauna, and man himself. The forms are reinterpreted and recreated by the history and culture that characterize the state of Oaxaca. The pieces have received multiple awards, recognition, and participation in different forums.

The Legacy of Doña Rosa Real Mateo

Doña Rosa Real Mateo, who started in the pottery trade at the age of 10, is the person who made San Bartolo Coyotepec's burnished clay famous. In 1953, she began to polish the clay with fragments of quartz, which gave her earthenware a distinctive shine. Doña Rosa's innate artistic talent allowed her to create the most varied vessels, breaking state and national borders and making her internationally famous. Her works were celebrated in Juan G. Vasconcelos and Samuel Mondragón's song "Cántaro de Coyotepec".


Black clay pottery is a unique and iconic pottery style that has become popular among collectors of Mexican handicrafts. The pottery is known for its distinct appearance, durability, and strength. However, the scarcity of the raw materials used to create this pottery style has created significant challenges for artisans in San Bartolo Coyotepec. Despite these challenges, artisans are continuing to innovate and experiment to keep this pottery style alive and thriving.