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.