William Spratling jewelry in Mexico and the amazing history of silversmithing in Taxco

Taxco has been important for the development of the gold and silver work. Exquisite artists have flourished, giving recognition to this beautiful city.

William Spratling jewelry in Mexico and the amazing history of silversmithing in Taxco
Mexican silver in Taxco. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Silversmithing in Taxco in its early years was based on primitive and very traditional techniques. Due to the abundance of silver, silver was worked directly from the metal, for which furnaces were used with cedarwood, in a forge that extracted the metal at high temperatures. The second step was the lamination by heating and forging with a hammer; the caliber was made with the fingers, without any instrument. Then the piece was drawn on the surface of the silver sheet, cut with a saw, and placed on a box of hot tar that served to fix it; from that moment the artistic work began, either chiseled or embossed.

In the 1920s there were only two places where silver objects were made, one was the workshop of Don Melitón Gómez in the Plazuela de San Juan and the other was the workshop of Mr. and Mrs. Domínguez in San Nicolás. They were dedicated to making religious objects, sacred vessels, monstrances, and other objects of that style. The Dominguez made some jewelry, especially rings and bracelets; sometimes they decorated them with colored enamel.

When Guillermo Spratling decided to dedicate himself to silversmithing, the first thing he did was to have space and craftsmen. To begin with, he rented for $15.00 a month the old house of the Customs House -whose construction was in such bad conditions that he could almost only use the floors- and with the first workers he had, he began to make very simple things: small earrings in the shape of half oranges and necklaces with silver beads.

One day Spratling told me: "I became a silversmith out of hunger because I ran out of resources and the first pieces that came out of the workshop at the Aduana (" Customs ") I put them on a small table at the exit of Bar Paco, where I talked to American tourists and sold them". That is how Spratling silver began to be talked about in Taxco and there began to be a demand, but there was a lack of adequate procedures to do it on a larger scale, to introduce machinery to make the non-craft parts faster and cheaper.

In 1931, after having visited the goldsmiths of Iguala -who were skeptical of Don Guillermo's proposal to work with silver, because they considered that the finished pieces would have very little value- Spratling managed to convince Artemio Navarrete, a young jeweler from Iguala, to come and work in his workshop. Almost at the same time, Alfonso Ruiz Mondragón arrived and began to apply his techniques to silver. They were the first goldsmiths of the nucleus of master craftsmen who began to teach the silversmiths of Taxco more ambitious techniques, and in the forties, Luis Montes de Oca modernized silver work even more.

Even so, the techniques for working gold were also very rudimentary. Ruiz Mondragón used the technique of dental mechanics with crucibles of plumbaginous or graphite: they made their pieces in plaster, from one piece they took out several molds in burnt earth - cement paste with burnt oil or pumice powder with piloncillo water - they filled the crucibles with this paste and left the space of the piece with a mold, drilled two holes and let it dry; Once the metal became liquid, they would spin the crucible tied to the chain until the metal filled the empty part; when it cooled, the gold piece was ready to be refined.

The first to work with scorched earth were the brothers Eduardo and Victoriano Rego; sometime later they began to use a vacuum chamber to remove the air bubbles from the gypsum. Later, Spratling sent Luis Montes de Oca to New York to learn the lost wax technique and the use of centrifuges to achieve a better casting of the gold. Upon his return, a workshop was set up using the same techniques and the first centrifuge was purchased.

Through these experiences, Spratling realized that there were processes that had to stop being handmade, such as the production of metallic silver and its lamination. Thus the first rolling mills arrived in Taxco - silver foil was the main raw material - and the measuring instruments to calibrate the silver piece and with them, a large-scale production: the pieces could now be reproduced the same as the prototype. The essential working techniques were clearly defined by tradition and are still in use today, such as the pitch box, in which the silver sheet is fixed, or the openwork pieces - the design was traced on the sheet and cut out with a bow and saw - to be chiseled or embossed to give them their final shape and soldered with a blowtorch and a leather bellows.

The apprenticeship in silversmithing was like in the old guilds: before becoming a master, one was apprenticed for a long time and to become an apprentice one first had to be a trainee or errand boy. To become a master silversmith, one had to master the techniques of filing, casting, chiseling, fretwork, soldering, and embossing and then specialize in one of them. Young people learn by observation. Among the children who learned silversmithing with Don Melitón was Marcial Chávez, who later became one of the masters who made the first pieces or prototypes for Don Guillermo.

Spratling followed a system of work that was not very rigid; he was the patron, as designer and marketer of his products in Mexico and abroad. In his workshop, master silversmiths worked by the piece, not for a salary. Each piece had a different value that the boss paid, and the masters took on assistants, apprentices, and "bitches" for whom they paid themselves. In other words, the established pyramid put Spratling at the top and immediately after him the master silversmiths, who organized the work and made the prototypes based on the designs of Don Guillermo, whose excellence in the manufacture of products and ability to teach and direct other silversmiths was indispensable.

The common silversmiths were his assistants, their function was to repeat the pieces, of which there were already models and prototypes, for sale on a larger scale. The "zorras" (whores, vixens, bitches - translators note) were located in the lower part of the scheme. They entered the workshop to support the work of the silversmiths and the masters; they were waiters and errand boys who at first could not even approach the silversmiths' work table and little by little, according to their behavior and interest in silversmithing, they could eventually become apprentices and sit on the silversmith's bench to test their skill, which was measured by fretting the sheet in a straight line. An economic and social system was thus established that paid off.

Spratling was bold and enterprising, a studious man of the processes, and his main virtue was the quality of his drawing and his design concept. His leadership capacity, his great culture, and the wealth of knowledge he possessed about the prevailing tastes in the most developed countries, which were his potential markets, brought him great success in silverware. To this was added the legend that had already begun.

The story of the man from New Orleans was well known, especially by the American press: "Young American architect initiates the renaissance of silverware in Taxco"; his relations with the American intelligentsia awakened the curiosity of tourists to meet him and buy his silver pieces. The growth of his workshop was so rapid that in four years, in 1935, some of the first masters had already separated to open their workshops and, in 1940, he employed more than 300 artisans who sold more than $2,000,000.00 a year.

Spratling developed a whole philosophy about goldsmithing: "Goldsmithing is best learned directly. Thus, as only man is capable of begetting man, it takes the goldsmith to produce the goldsmith. I have never given lessons to my goldsmiths nor have I ever tried to instruct them in techniques, except in designs and efficiency. Thus, a good craftsman can be trained by means that provoke his ingenuity and encourage his daily development.

This resembles the production of certain gems. When a small fragment of emerald is exposed to certain temperatures and the exact necessary pressure is reproduced, and combined with the proper materials, the original crystal can become a large emerald of fine quality." Under this system, silversmiths such as Jorge Castillo, Miguel Castillo, Toño Castillo, Enrique Ledezma, Marcial Chávez, Eulalio Olvera, Antonio Pineda, Virgilio López, Manuel Carbajal, who gave continuity to Spratling's work, were formed and distinguished themselves.

Polishing, as part of the finishing, he also mechanized: "... in the 1930s, and although it makes me blush to admit it, my old goldsmiths, who came from the interior, used the leaves of a local plant to smooth the rough surface of the silver, instead of the emery paper of various grades that we can now use. The name of the plant, tlalchichinole, is now forgotten by most Taxco goldsmiths; but it was used very effectively.

The back of the small dried leaf had a serrated surface like a file. In those days, to polish a piece of jewelry, to give it the final finish, the goldsmith would roll up his shirt sleeves, and spread a little pumice stone along his arm, and proceed to vigorously polish the silver on his flesh. Silversmiths of the present generation would laugh out loud if they saw this operation done today. Now everyone has a small polishing wheel and a cloth disk, and the polishing process is done in a moment, while the goldsmith chats with his neighbor who is also working with his polishing wheel."

Spratling was always convinced that production demanded a constant refinement of techniques, designs, and application of new materials; that was what he taught the Eskimos who came to his workshop to learn the techniques of silversmithing and the use of shell and tortoiseshell in silver designs. Thus he introduced the first stamping machine in the silver industry; he taught Juan Cervantes, an artisan who forged machetes, the use of this machinery, with which stamping machine production began to acquire a semi-industrial character.

"Many people still have the idea that all types of machinery are detrimental to obtaining good results in craftsmanship. However, this is only the case where the machine replaces the creative and formative capacity of the craftsman; but when the machine is used as an instrument in the service of the craftsman's instinct, the potentialities of that impulse are greater. René d'Harnoncourt was right when he said that 'the good craftsman is the one who recognizes the good tool when he sees it'. It should be added that the good craftsman is not only the one who realizes the usefulness of the tools at hand but the one who is also interested in discovering a good use for the materials at hand."

Spratling's first designs were based on pre-Columbian stamps that when applied to clay left a fretwork, unmistakably Mexican; they were very simple, but they achieved what he was looking for, that is, a style of his own. Shortly thereafter, he ventured into a style that would become unmistakably his own, such as the descending eagle with Aztec motifs and some bracelets using the pre-Columbian fretwork, whose line was accentuated by oxidizing the silver and then polishing.

After the successful beginnings of the Taller de las Delicias and Spratling's fame as the founder of a new industry and, above all, as a designer, the growth of this workshop was so important that, as time went by, some of the artisans and employees of the Delicias established new workshops and thus the silversmith entrepreneurs appeared. Some merchants ventured into the silver market, buying from small home-produced artisans who were beginning to make their first efforts in silversmithing.

Then there were splits in the group of silversmiths who had begun to realize that having learned the handling of metal, a type of design that was different from Spratling's was necessary and that would begin to generate new workshops. The first friendly breaks were the Castillo's who formed a group in which the idea of a similar but different design appeared for the first time, and which later evolved into a style all its own. With them went two brilliant silversmiths, both designers: Jorge (Chato) Castillo and Salvador Vaca Terán. It was a formidable group of designers and they established a unique style.

On the other hand, Don Héctor Aguilar who had been the Manager of the Delicias Workshop, a friend of Spratling and a good draftsman, began, along with his wife Lois, to make different designs, although still similar to the work done in the Delicias, and founded the Borda Workshop. Hector Aguilar was the main designer of the pre-Columbian themes, but Valentin Vidaurreta, who arrived in Taxco in 1941, was the one who put the floral designs to use in this workshop.

Besides Spratling's, the two workshops that grew very rapidly were the Borda and Castillo workshops and, a little less in size, that of Antonio Pineda. Later a very fine draftsman arrived in Taxco who became the Castillo's designer, following the lines established by Chato and making a serious effort to introduce a style different from the origin, by the innovative ideas of the workshop; this designer was Elías Alvarado.

This workshop and Elías were characterized by continuing to innovate. This had a lot to do with the figure of Antonio Castillo, who began to explore the possibilities of using new elements such as plastic resins; this is how they came up with what they called led, for which they used colored feathers immersed in a resin that, using a catalyst, crystallized and made a transparent figure. This was a great innovation and above all, they were leaders in the use of new techniques.

The Borda workshop began to use more and more wood, especially rosewood, and a design style that, following much of Spratling's idea, used Mexican motifs; however, it became more and more classic and less innovative, although with a high-quality finish. At this time, Taller Borda introduced a lot of machinery that accelerated the process and naturally the production for which there was a great demand not only from the tourists that came to Taxco, but also orders from abroad.

One firm that began to boom was the one headed by Antonio Pineda. It involved many goldsmiths who had a keen sense of design and were looking for indigenous drawing structures. It was, however, the finish that gave a very characteristic quality to the Pineda pieces. There were several draftsmen here, among them the most outstanding was Chema Pineda who gave a very special flavor to the design process. Antonio Pineda learned in Spratling's workshop, but also with Valentin Vidaurreta in his workshop in Mexico, in the streets of Aldaco.

During this period, family workshops began to multiply, as well as small groups that competed for thanks to the boom in the silver trade, i.e., silversmiths who did not produce and bought the supply that was on the market. At this stage, the copying of designs from important workshops prevailed, and something that Spratling and Don Héctor Aguilar sought with great determination was that the designers' copyrights be respected. It must be said that even today there are no copyrights for the design: if a piece is successful in one of the workshops, within 15 days the market is flooded with something identical or similar.

A very individualistic designer who also began to have success in his drawings and a lot of originality was Sigifredo Pineda. This goldsmith, Sigi as he is known, introduced many variations in design; he also began to dabble in brass and bronze, using oxidation techniques to give both color and texture contrasts to his pieces. This also began to be used in many of the silver pieces in which he used contrast as a way to differentiate his style from others, even though he also incorporated the advances of the great designers.

Little by little he established a style of his own, although he never flourished as a large workshop due to economic limitations and the difficulty of working on a large scale. Sigfrido Pineda apprenticed in Iguala in filigree and later worked with the Castillo family for three years. His line of design was based on modern art, he broke with the classic taxqueño, incorporated distorted surrealist figures, and sought a finish that would make it unique.

Another great workshop was that of Margot Van Vourries, known as Margot de Taxco. She was born in New Orleans and grew up in San Francisco. She came to Mexico and married Antonio Castillo, who worked with Spratling and began to draw. They made pieces at night that began to sell. They decided to become independent, left Spratling, and formed the Castillo workshop.

During her visits to Japan, Margot realized the future of enameling and learned the technique. Japanese design had a great influence on her work and she dedicated herself to achieving a technique that would maintain stable quality. She was a skilled designer, she was attracted to the use of enamel, both cloisonne from China and enameled pieces from Japan. With these trends, she established a style of silverware unlike any other. She thought that pre-Columbian motifs were compatible with the Japanese style and with the use of enamel.

Margot learned silversmithing techniques from her stay in Castillo's workshop and from what she knew of Spratling's silversmithing: the use of the box to receive shell or some other element. She used this same technique, but made the box thinner, about a millimeter, so that she could fill it with enamel and that when treated in the furnaces at high temperature it would take on the consistency of enamel.

There had already been in the 1930s the use of enamel in small ring ornaments made by Mr. and Mrs. Dominguez in San Nicolas, but it was never more than a secondary ornamental element in their works. Margot de Taxco with her designs and style achieved great popularity and a large market that came to give a different slant to Taxco silverwork. The initial problem was to make the molds for the silver base using presses that applied 40-50 tons of pressure and then apply the enamel, the colors were developed by Juan Gonzalez. Then came the treatment at high temperatures of 700 to 900 degrees Celsius.

Another style that should be remembered is that of Ana María Núñez de Brillanti, who founded the Victoria Workshop. She had been a drawing teacher, but her husband was transferred to Taxco as Delegate of the Secretary of Labor. She made a drawing of a snake and when Margot saw it she told her: "it is beautiful, but now do it in silver". So she began to make her tests in silverware.

Spratling taught her the method of polishing with tlalchichinole since there were no polishers yet. Her style was based on copper and she added silver figures. Her jugs had to be isolated from copper because of their toxicity, so she experimented with the electro silver plating developed by her husband Rafael Brillanti. In this way the copper remained outside and the electroplating inside.

Bernice Goodspeed came to Mexico to study Anthropology and had a fascination for pre-Hispanic art. She spent a lot of time in Tepoztlán. In 1935 she met Carl Pappee and they married soon after. On Calle del Arco they opened a gallery where Carl's drawings and paintings were sold; she began to design carved silver objects, inspired by pre-Columbian art, and her style was different: she used silver in two layers, using the oxidized lower layer to give greater emphasis to her drawings in the second layer.

Another external influence was that of Jana Thomas who had a very clear idea of differentiating herself from what existed and took from the Florentines the idea of grated silver which she used in her flowers and many of her ornaments. She was a skilled draughtswoman who managed to establish a style of her own. It should also be mentioned that she was a great promoter and managed to have her work presented in several of the best jewelry stores in the United States, including Tiffany.

There are other workshops and styles that need to be mentioned. Matilde Poulat and Ricardo Salas revived colonial styles and, above all, Mudejar. Others were Rafael Domínguez, Reveriano and María Castillo, Dámaso Gallegos, Isidro García and Daniel Espinosa. Within the different characters of jewelry, it is necessary to mention the goldsmiths who were refining the lost wax technique. Luis Montes de Oca, Marcial Chávez, Manuel Carvajal and Virgilio López are the best exponents.

Three artisans of this stage should also be remembered because they are related to the development of the taxqueña handicrafts. One of them developed the lapidary: Salatiel Martínez (along with his brothers) began to carve stones of different types, some semi-precious and others of great volume, from precious stones such as topaz to malachite and jadeite, and in this way a technique was created that opened new directions for Taxqueña craftsmanship.

One of those who most used lapidary combined with silverware was Ezequiel Tapia. A man with multiple national awards who, we could say, departs from the styles generated by Spratling and ventures into something that I would call silver sculpture: the combination of stone with silver in large sizes, using three dimensions to create a true type of sculpture. It is difficult to find imitators precisely because of the precision required and the need to control the drawing and its expression in three dimensions. He would be one of those I would consider as silver sculptors.

To finish with this group of silver sculptors, there is very important work, that of Chema Pineda. His work "Life and Death", which won a national award, combines sculpture with jewelry. This piece is a tree divided into two parts: life and death, which are expressed through the use of stones of different colors and qualities. Life shows its branches upwards with brightly colored stones and death downwards, with dark-colored stones. Both Tapia and Pineda can be considered as signifying a break with tradition that opens new paths forward.

We have to naturally reach wholesale because what began with a single workshop in the 1930s has become massive. Taxco is an entire bazaar of silver and the competition that arose when the silver merchants began to buy from small workshops, also marked the beginning of competition in prices, since it was more expensive to have a body of designers than to buy imitations or variations of what was already designed.

Thus appeared a massification of the taxqueña craftsmanship. It began, in the first period, with the silver merchants who bought from the artisans, first arriving at a price before executing the work; later, when the competition among the family workshops was greater, a market dominated by demand was generated, first by the merchants and then by the wholesalers. It was the excess supply that favored the merchants and thus began to lower the price of the craftsmanship offered. It stabilized for some time with the idea that it was the weight of silver tripled, then it went down to double, and then it became a purchase almost for the price of silver.

That was a problem that was seen since the 1940s and Spratling as well as Hector Aguilar and Antonio Castillo tried to convince the government to respect copyright in the design. Many of the Taxco silversmiths joined in this effort, but they never succeeded in having the design considered as authorship; that is, the protection given to the intellectual or artistic effort of producing a design has never been protected by the laws of the nation.

The problem this represents is very clear. The design is discouraged, new designers do not emerge and the monotonous repetition of pieces and themes begins to appear, which will eventually lead Taxco's craftsmanship to a period of decadence if it is not already within it. Aside from the lack of development in design, the quality of workmanship has naturally declined.

The current massification is taking silverware to a stage of decline of this craft and in time it may become a closed chapter in our economy. We have to see it as one of these economic clusters that appear in societies and occupy a large space in their economy, such as electronics in Japan, watchmaking in Switzerland, or, a closer example, the amates of the Alto Balsas. That is what silversmithing is for Taxco. Its lack of evolution is a bad omen for the future. What are the causes? The main one is the lack of design protection. On the other hand, it lacks the quality control that the Swiss and Japanese emphasized at the time and that was the main factor in making its economic cluster last.

By Jaime Castrejón Diez, Source: INAH