by Jamie L. Shenkman
“Too hot to buy,” so say some dealers of vintage Mexican jewelry. A colleague in the antique and vintage jewelry business recently mentioned that prices have risen to the extent that acquiring top names such as William Spratling, Antonio Pineda, Hector Aguilar and other highly valued artists’ works no longer makes good business sense.
What, then, is a dealer – and for that matter, a collector – to do? If the premise is that you love vintage Mexican jewelry, you might want to start exploring some of the more affordable and lesser-known talented artists who often get overlooked: the silversmiths who comprise the craftsmen and women in the trenches, the ones in the talleres (workshops) physically crafting the designs. Their loving handiwork shines through in the minute irregularities of hand-wrought work. This is the main reason why many appreciate vintage Mexican jewelry when so much jewelry that comes to market today is manufactured.
Then there is the intrinsic beauty of silver, malleable and mold-able with its subtle luster that becomes reflective when shined, and deepens as its patina ages. Niello (intentional darkening) enhances and emboldens its depth, and semi-precious stones serve as accents or as the focus of these little works of art.
Silver content affects the beauty of these pieces because the higher the amount, the softer and richer the luster which obviates the need or inclination to polish it. Content higher than sterling (925), in particular 980 out of 1,000 parts, was favored by Spratling and became the benchmark for identifying older pieces, although the use of higher silver content has experienced some resurgence in recently created pieces.
The Vintage Market
The value of vintage Mexican silver jewelry rises and falls like other collectibles with demand as its driving factor. But what creates demand? The most significant influences have been attention-getting exhibitions, the publication and circulation of definitive books and catalogs, and world events.
For example, an exhibit of the work of Antonio Pineda (1919-2009), Silver Seduction: The Art of Mexican Modernist Antonio Pineda, which took place from August 2008 to March 2009 in California at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, caused the prices of his pieces to skyrocket. People wanted to collect his bold, modernistic designs that so expertly incorporated semi-precious stones. The demand increased, but several years later the craze passed and prices somewhat normalized.
Another exhibition in 1990 at the Carole A. Berk Gallery in Bethesda, MD, with its catalog and subsequent book Hecho en Mexico by Penny C. Morrill, and the two friends’ later collaboration on the book Mexican Silver also helped spur interest.
But to begin at the beginning, we must go back to a world event, the Mexican Revolution of 1910. To encapsulate its result, the wealthy ruling class was overthrown and the impoverished rural peoples re-emerged along with their folk traditions and crafts that had defied conquest. Mexican artistry soon came to the attention of Mexican and North American intellectuals, who began to collect and promote the jewelry and crafts that defined the aesthetic.
Two men in particular, William Spratling and Fred Davis, were responsible for initiating Mexico’s 20th century silver renaissance. Spratling, an architect and artist who taught at Tulane University in New Orleans, came to Mexico in the late 1920s and settled in the city of Taxco. Having developed an interest in Mesoamerican archaeology and culture from his colleagues at Tulane, he traveled to Mexico for several summers lecturing and exploring. He sought out remote villages in the state of Guerrero, 110 miles from Mexico City, where in some places Nahuatl, the Aztec language, was spoken. Spratling collected artifacts and contemporary indigenous crafts.
Fred Davis moved to Mexico as early as 1910, and worked for the Sonora News Company which sold newspapers and curios at railway stations. The curios became more than average souvenirs since Davis insisted on the best work from the artisans who sold to him. A designer as well, his inspiration came from the Pre-Columbian art on pyramid walls, and contemporary Indian work. In 1927, Davis expanded the company’s fine and popular art offerings. He hired Rene d’Harnoncourt, then a cultured yet penniless Austrian count, as a salesman, and the two collaborated in promoting popular and fine art. The Mexican Ministry of Education asked d’Harnoncourt to arrange a traveling exhibit in the U.S. of Mexican folk art in 1929, and the following year he organized an exhibit of Mexican fine and applied arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much later, d’Harnoncourt became Director of the Museum of Modern Art (1949-1968.)
In 1933, Fred Davis went into partnership with Frank Sanborn of Sanborn’s department store in Mexico City, which was frequented by tourists. Davis became manager of the store’s antiques and fine crafts department where for more than 20 years he encouraged enthusiasm for Mexican crafts and silver jewelry.
The circle of intellectuals, artists, and writers – everyone knew each other – included U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow and his wife, Elizabeth, a writer, who collected Mexican folk art. Morrow had initiated the Met exhibit, and some of the pots for the show were borrowed from Spratling. Since Spratling was settled in Taxco, Morrow suggested he consider reviving the silver industry. While that city’s economy had been based on silver mining in the past, its mines were depleted. Its prospects had languished for more than 150 years, but it was becoming a popular stopping point along the 10-hour direct drive from Mexico City to Acapulco with the completion of a new road in 1929.
In 1931, Spratling established Taller de Las Delicias, with the goal of producing Mexican objects that would result in a livelihood for some of the native people. He hired several apprentices including Antonio Castillo and his brothers, whose uncle ran the hardware store and to whom he had given English lessons. Spratling engaged a silversmith who had been trained by Don Wenceslao Herrara – an old Indian who Spratling considered to be the best silversmith in Guerrero – Artemio Navarrete, and Alfonso Ruiz Mondragon. These silver masters, or plateros, taught Spratling silversmithing. His first pieces were made from melted silver peso coins and produced at his kitchen table. Silver had to be brought in from a neighboring town.
Thus began the transformation of the folk art silversmithing into a thriving jewelry industry and the renaissance of Taxco. Silver design which had been based on European or Colonial models began to draw from the art and architecture of Mexico’s ancient heritage for inspiration. Talleres flourished with hundreds of craftsman at work.
With the advent of World War II, luxury goods in Europe were no longer available. Many retailers in the U.S., including Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co., and Saks Fifth Avenue, turned to Taxco for the purchase of fine silver jewelry. Apprentices such as the Castillo brothers, Antonio Pineda, Hector Aguilar, Enrique Ledesma and Rafael Melendez went on to open their own production workshops, while others chose to work for many of the top name designers. These talented artists continued to make beautiful silver jewelry, as well as flatware and hollowware. Although they may lack name recognition, the works of such artists as Pedro Castillo, Reveriano Castillo, Miguel Melendez, Rafael Dominguez, Victoria, Emma Melendez, Miguel Garcia Martinez, Beto, Manuel Altamirano, and talleres including Plateria Far Fan of Mexico City, present opportunities for collectors – especially new ones.
Start by learning to recognize excellent craftsmanship and design. Check the clasp to ensure the piece opens and closes properly. While many Mexican craftsmen produce excellent designs, not as much precision may have been paid to the clasp. Examine the back of the piece to ascertain its trade or hallmarks. Familiarize yourself with the marks by obtaining a book on silver marks such as The Little Book of Mexican Silver Trade and Hallmarks, Hecho en Mexico by Billie Hougart, or studying sites on the Internet. Many beautiful pieces made before 1948 only include stamps saying “Mexico” and “Silver.”
The Mexican government introduced the Eagle stamping mark circa 1948 to ensure that silver content was at least 925 parts out of 1000. The mark itself had several iterations, and contained within it a number usually referring to a designer or studio. Experts disagree as to when the Eagle mark was discontinued, with some saying circa 1970; however, by 1980 a new number system arose. Signed pieces included the name or initials of the designer or crafter, and usually note the place of production: D.F., indicating Mexico City; “Hecho en Mexico” for “Made in Mexico;” or “Taxco” for the city where it was made. Such designations as “Sterling,” “Silver” or “925” usually occur in a circle. Some jewelry also carry design numbers.
Finally, feel comfortable buying what you like, be it jewelry with Pre-conquest motifs or more modern ones reflective of American and Scandinavian mid-century designs, or of individual artistic inspiration. Look for the unusual, try something in mixed-metal, if that appeals, or stick with timeless, classic designs. Whatever you do, please don’t follow the crowd. There’s value to be found out there—all you have to do is hunt and do your homework.
Jamie L. Shenkman specializes in antique and vintage jewelry. A graduate of Pratt Institute, with an M.F.A. degree with a minor in Art History, she is a former journalist and editor. Her father brought back jewelry from Taxco in the 1960s, inspiring a love for Mexican jewelry.
Jamie can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her offerings on Ruby Lane by going to rubylane.com/shop/jamiesantiques and follow her on Instagram at @jamiesantiques
- Mexican Silver, 20th Century Hand-wrought Jewelry & Silver, by Penny C. Morrill and Carole A. Berk, Shiffer Publishing Ltd., 1994
- The Little Book of Mexican Silver Trade and Hallmarks, Hecho en Mexico, by Billie Hougart, TBR International, Inc., 2001
- A Short History of Silver Jewelry Production in Taxco, by Carol Armstrong, posted Feb. 15, 2012, on Los Amigos del Arte Popular, Promoting Appreciation for Mexican Folk Art.