Tag Archives: Mexico

Taxco the Magic Town

Now a legend among collectors and a destination for Mexico’s wealthy and jewelry enthusiasts, the town of Taxco has made a name for itself in the world of silver, weaving past and present through the imagination of artisans.

The town is referred to as one of Mexico’s ‘magic towns’. Taxco is small city in the state of Guerrero, built near Atatzin Mountain. Its name in Nahuatl (the Aztec language) means Place of the Ballgame, referring to the spectator sport enjoyed throughout the pre-Columbian civilizations, likely played there as it was a seat for the local Aztec governor.  A silver mine, now nearly depleted, has operated continuously since that time, with the working of the metal traditionally taking place in the vicinity as well. The new town built by Cortez closer to the mine is rugged and steep, twisting roads paved with darks and light stones to form mosaics including images from the zodiac. It is a place with a continuous line into the past: despite government intervention, the locals still practice an array of local customs, including a fondness for penitent processions.  Wearing hoods they conduct various activities involving chains, rosaries with sharp spikes, thorns, whipping, or the carrying of heavy objects.  It’s said they are carried on for their affinity to the regular blood rituals of the Aztecs.

In the late 1920’s, on a recommendation from a friend at the embassy, an American named William Spratling arrived in Taxco with the express purpose of setting up a jewelry workshop to revive the native reputation for silver in the area. A renaissance man, he had practiced architecture, participated in southern literary circles counting among his friends William Faulkner, and later became a champion of Mexican artists, Diego Rivera in particular, arranging most of the important New York shows for them. Hiring a local goldsmith and using Mesoamerican design principles, Spratling’s venture in Taxco far surpassed his wildest expectations. What originally was conceived as a modest jewelry shop in a picturesque mountain town became a massive apprenticeship system drawing and training talent from throughout the region. Essentially part of the same wave of economy and popular interest that fueled Arts and Crafts and similar movements in other parts of the world, an additional boost arrived when the European war interrupted supplies and placed Mexico in the spotlight for producing luxury goods. Trying to capitalize on this Spratling made a public offering and wound up losing control of his company. Nevertheless the system held, and many of his artisans went on to found workshops and design houses of their own that remain in operation. Their work and imitations of the unique regional style developed in Taxco can be found in antique shops throughout the Americas. It is denoted by sets of full, heavy repousse work, especially cuffs and bracelets and broad expressive necklaces, or as flat patterned enamel or mosaic inlay pieces. The work runs a spectrum between modern style and direct Mesoamerican reference, and generally features elaborate maker’s and quality marks, and the town’s name.


In 2008 a little vacation in Oaxaca, Mexico turned up a few local jewelry themes.


Crosses of Yalalaga

The Cross of Yalalaga is usually an equilateral cross with three pendant crosses attached.  It was all over the place, on rooftops as weathervanes, in ceramic, and especially in silver.  Locals explained it was around long before Cortez showed up.  Oaxaca is a UNESCO heritage site, as it is home to quite a few totally distinct indigenous languages.  You can see some of these pieces have been Catholicized, some have not.  I was especially curious about the winged heart shape variation – some are even double-winged.

More Crosses of Yalalaga

Too bad I was still getting the hang of that camera.  In heavier versions of the pendant, the design wold reveal more distinctive transepts than a simple equilateral cross – distinctly resembling the sweeping wings of a diving bird.

Bird Earrings

Beautiful filligree works seemed to cary the unique fondness for the downward swooping bird.  Above, traditional wire forming methods show Spanish and indigenous influence.


Variation: Double Birds and Crescent

In other pieces the bird theme continued as two birds facing each other, forming a symmetry meeting at the beak and feet.  This might explain the ‘winged heart’ on the smaller Yalalaga pendants, the heart shape being te silhouette of this symmetry.  Again, we have the downward crescent suggesting a swooping motion.

Contemporary Necklace

This magnificent piece of silver jewelry seems to have everything but the kitchen sink, but suggests indigenous metaphor in its arrangement.  The collar fan area is an array of winged cherubs, with an enclosure of a hand holding a heart.  Below it are a pair of ‘eyes’ that suggest the ancient Nahuatl god of rain and harvest, Tlaloc, that can be found concealed in the painted motifs of colonial churches.  If this is the case, we have another clue: two hands descend from his eyes, appearing to deliver the disc of the sun and the moon.  Could the hands’ gesture double as the silhouette of two birds?  The heart shape is easily made this way.  Could the descending bird represent the sun, or light?  And the pendants on the Yalalaga rays of light, raindrops, or seeds?

The trip to Oaxaca was a satisfying survey of syncretism between religion and culture.  Something in the jewelry of today retains threads of previous cultural incarnations: people who once made ornamental earplugs now make silver filligree birds and crosses.

Zapotec Earplugs