For the past 60 years, tourists visiting Mexico have sought distinctive silver jewelry and holloware, crafted by native artisans. Although the designs they find are, for the most part, adapted from pre-Columbian clay seals and executed by Mexican silversmiths, the current industry was actually begun in the 1920s by an American architect, William Spratling. Spratling combined the geometric abstraction of modern architecture with indigenous Mexican motifs, both Indian and Hispanic, to produce a unique style that was to influence jewelry design both in Mexico and in the United States.
Taxco is a small city in the state of Guerrero, where silver mining had been the primary industry since 1528, when Cortez sent envoys there to acquire metal for Spain. Mining gradually decreased as richer deposits were discovered elsewhere and the Spanish settlers turned to farming. However, in 1716, José de la Borda, a Spanish colonial of French extraction, discovered a rich vein of silver in the mountains surrounding Taxco and thereby made his fortune. Borda invested much of his money in Taxco, building roads, houses and the magnificent cathedral, Santa Prisca. Eventually, squandering his wealth, he sold the Taxco mines, which were then worked only sporadically over the next 200 years.
Spratling first visited Taxco in the summer of 1926 to study Spanish colonial architecture. At that time he was an assistant professor in the department of architecture at Tulane University, in New Orleans. After returning to New Orleans in the fall, he longed for Mexico and her people, especially his artist/friends, Diego Rivera, Miguel Covorrubias and David Sigueiros. Commissioned in 1929 to write a book that pictured life in a Mexican village, he decided to live in Mexico until the book’s completion. He bought a house in Taxco, which he named Calle de las Delicias, near the Plaza de la Borda, and settled there to write Little Mexico. The book was completed in three years. Nevertheless, Spratling lived in the same house for an additional 13 years. He remained there, motivated by a desire to improve Taxco’s economy and encourage the community’s artistic spirit. He conceived a plan to revive the once flourishing silver mines and to produce metalworks for sale.
Until the late 1920s, the majority of silver objects being produced in Mexico were in the Spanish Colonial style – artisans limiting their output to traditional basins, candlesticks and ecclesiastical wares. The only silver designs that could be considered innovative were those being executed by another American, Fred Davis, whose shop was located in Mexico City. Spratling’s scheme did not initially meet with enthusiasm among the local people, who couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to buy jewelry made from silver, preferring, instead, traditional gold filigree jewelry and gold-plated brass belt buckles. Furthermore, there were no local artisans to fabricate his designs. The only silversmith in Taxco was Don Moloton Gomez, who was 80 years old, nearly blind and who crafted only an occasional spoon or saddle ornament. Spratling decided to import silversmiths from Iguala, the town just south of Taxco, where gold was worked. Although the local “plateros” considered it beneath their dignity to waste their artistry on the cheaper metal, Spratling finally pursuaded two boys, who were good goldsmiths, to come to Taxco.
One of them was Artemio Navarrete, who met “Don Guillermo” (Spratling) around 1925. He stated that “at the time, rather than buying silver from a bank, one-peso silver coins were smelted to make artworks. Coins were minted from .921 sterling silver. Don Guillermo visited my small workshop in Iguala and ordered a silver ring, which I was to make following his design and using a stone he provided. Later, he placed other orders that I made following his designs, ornamenting the articles with Grecian frets and using the stones, generally jade or onyx, which were then found in the area.” Soon Spratling imported Navarrete to Taxco. Needing assistance, Navarette convinced some children, who would bathe in the fountain at Spratling’s home, to help him wash, polish or beat the silver into sheets. Toño Castillo and Antonio Piñeda, who went on to open important silversmith shops of their own, were among these boys.
In 1931, Spratling rented a semiruin, called La Aduana (The Customs House), as a production shop. Silver belt buckles and bracelets, which borrowed ranch motifs, such as ropes, straps and balls, were their first pieces. At this juncture, workmanship tended to be crude, but the formal statements were already strong. When tourists bought these naively wrought silver objects with great enthusiasm, La Aduana was on its way, sometimes selling up to 100 pesos worth of jewelry a day. The shop expanded and Spratling added a group of tinsmiths, carpenters and an iron worker. He was dedicated to encouraging native talent and relates in his autobiography how, one evening, some Indians from Coatepec came to his home to sell serapes that they had woven.
Upon seeing the textiles, he casually suggested that someday they might like to set up their looms at this shop in Taxco. One day, three families appeared with their looms loaded on six mules. They joined La Aduana, which was moved to larger quarters in 1934 and renamed Taller de las Delicias. Under Spratling’s guidance, the shop was fast becoming an important center for the folk arts of weaving and furnituremaking, as well as silversmithing and jewelrymaking. As Spratling states in his autobiography, “…my background made it a natural to take up where other people had left off and achieve a certain amount of improvement in the silver, the tin, the furniture and the weavings, since an architect is primarily concerned with materials and their possibilities particularly in design.”
Las Delicias prospered from the beginning. The road linking Mexico City and Taxco had been completed in 1927 and tourists came in droves to buy regional crafts. The original experiment was a huge success. Local boys who showed ability were apprenticed to the smiths working at Las Delicias. “We were called ‘los zoros,’ or foxes, and we would spend thirty days just sweeping the floors, and then another month making the beads, the wires, then learning how to solder, to hammer the silver. In those days, there was not a blow torch, only a mouth blower. Finally, we learned to make the designs, and to produce a finished piece of jewelry.” The number of artisans grew; in 1940, Spratling’s shop employed over 300. For the first three years, Las Delicias was the only silver shop in Taxco. But by 1940, many artisans had left to set up their own shops, some of exceptional quality, like those of Toño Castillo and Antonio Piñeda.
Spratling never taught his silversmiths technique, leaving that to the masters, but he did guide them in design. He sought inspiration in the rich and varied motifs of the pre-Hispanic Indians, combining them with the streamline sensibility of sweeping curves and unadorned surface patterning. He also adapted motifs of the Spanish colonials, such as bows and the loops and bells of charro (Mexican cowboy) costume ornaments. He did not believe in setting extremely precious, imported stones in silver but employed indigenous materials. “I’ve always had the conviction” he stated, “that certain materials have the right to be worked in a given community because they are native to that area and the work of the designer is to utilize these materials and to dignify them.” From the Taxco silver mines and the Balsas region just south, he obtained amethyst quartz which was cur and polished in the workshop. Dull finishes were applied to the silver to intensify its sculptural qualities and to limit the reflection of surrounding images that might cause some distortion of the forms.
The initial phase of Spratling silver ended, more or less, at this point in the early 1940s, the entire project being well regarded by the design community. Pieces had even been exhibited in 1937 at the Brooklyn Museum in “Contemporary Industrial and Handwrought Silver.” With success, however, came plagiarism. Even though Spratling registered his designs, other inferior shops, unfortunately, copied them within a few weeks of their exposure on the market. Spratling relates how one imitator, Serafim Moctezuma, even went so far as to steal his hallmark by printing the WS upside down to form SM.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, most of the Mexican silversmiths, concerned about capital, panicked and wanted to shut down their shops. Spratling vowed to keep production going until his money ran out, but, ironically, within two weeks of the attack, buyers from some of the finest American department stores, such as Macy’s, Nieman-Marcus, Marshall Field, Tiffany & Co. and Lord & Taylor, cut off from European imports, came to Mexico, seeking luxury goods. This exceptional increase in wholesale orders led Spratling to accept outside capital and to employ over 400 smiths. In 1945, the name of the company was changed to Spratling y Artisanos and moved to larger quarters. However, the Mexican government, desiring to cash in on this great financial success, taxed Spratling’s exports so heavily that after the War was over, the American department stores returned to silver manufacturers from abroad. Furthermore, later in 1945, an unethical American businessman, using the company as a scapegoat in a tax-evasion scheme, caused William Spratling to resign as head and Spratling y Artisanos to be dissolved.
Around this time, Spratling purchased a ranch 16 kilometers from Taxco, and, in 1947, with a small amount of capital, set up shop again, calling it Taxco-el-Viejo. One year later, through the intervention of the United States Government, Spratling’s creative energy was directed farther north; consequently, his design sense was influenced by a different vernacular style.
The Indians and Eskimos of Alaska, much like the natives of Taxco, before Spratling, were in a very depressed economic situation. Small, isolated towns supported some industry during the three summer months but had no means of providing income for their inhabitants during the long winter. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was very concerned, and, in 1948, Alaska’s Governor Gruening suggested to the Department of the Interior that he ask William Spratling, a personal friend, to help the Indians and Alaskan Eskimos develop an economy, based on production of native crafts, as he had done in Mexico.
Spratling flew his plane to Alaska and the Arctic, studied native design and created 200 models based on indigenous stylistic traditions, in materials native to Alaska, such as silver, shell, wood, ivory, gold and baleen ( an organic substance found in the jaws of whales). He then flew several Eskimos back to Taxco to learn silversmithing from the Mexicans, execute the models and return to Alaska to exhibit the articles in remote Alaskan villages, instructing, in turn, those villagers in silversmithing techniques. Although the prototypes shown in Juneau were beautifully made, they were never circulated to the remote northern areas. However, they were exhibited, with critical acclaim, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C .
Spratling’s intensive study of the less convoluted Alaskan Indian motifs greatly influenced his later style in Mexico, which became simpler and less South American, relying less on borrowed Aztec, Mayan or Spanish motifs and more on universal nonrepresentational forms.
Spratling often combined silver with tortoise shell, ebony, rosewood, malachite, ivory and yellow jasper. His later output also employed gold. Spratling’s designs of the 1950s and 1960s reflect the general trend in studio jewelry of that period, towards a wearable interpretation, in metal and stones, of modern nonobjective sculpture. Spratling epitomizes Philip Morton’s statement in Contemporary Jewelry : A Craftsman’s Handbook, “Contemporary jewelers, working in the rational mode (i.e., that which seeks the simplest, most direct, most effective and most economical means) strive to achieve the most direct expression of form arising from simple processes and depend upon the qualities of the materials themselves.”
Clean, simple line, shape and form, combined with wood, tortoise shell and semiprecious stones, continued to be seen in Spratling’s designs until his death on August 7 , 1967, in an automobile accident on a Mexican highway. An old friend, Alberto Ulrich, bought Spratling’s ranch and silversmithy from the former employees of his workshop, who had inherited the properties. The business is presently called “Sucesores de William Spratling, S.A.” and reportedly is run very much as Don Guillermo himself had done.
The influence Spratling had on an entire industry and economy remains, as author Bud Schulberg so eloquently remarks, in the introduction to File on Spratling: An Autobiography, “From New Orleans he sailed across the Gulf of Mexico to establish himself as the pioneer silversmith of Taxco…a community that had lost touch with its own materials and its own inspiration in the shaping of those materials. It rook a southern ‘gringo’ to reinspire the hearts and minds of the latent Indian artists and artisans of Guerrero.”
The author wishes to thank Karen Rymer of Milagros Gallery, San Antonio, Texas, for her help and enthusiasm.
Toni Lesser Wolf is a jewelry historian, lecturer, curator and writer living in New York City.