by Carmen Armstrong
The birth of silver jewelry production in Taxco began with the arrival of American architect and artist William Spratling in Mexico in 1926. Born in New York State and educated in Alabama, Spratling moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he taught architecture as an associate professor at Tulane University. Considered the “Harvard of the South,” Tulane University had a well-known department of Mesoamerican studies, with Mayan archaeologist Franz Blom and anthropologist and writer Oliver LaFarge at the helm, with whom Spratling became good friends.
Inspired by the travels of Blom and LaFarge, William Spratling became a lecturer on colonial architecture during the 1926 summer session of the National University of Mexico in Mexico City. After the conclusion of his classes, he would then tour many of the colonial towns throughout Mexico, sketch colonial architecture and write articles for various publications in the United States. This was the beginning of Spratling’s love affair with Mexico.
After spending three summers in Mexico, Spratling decided in 1929 to move to the colonial silver mining town of Taxco, Guerrero permanently and support himself by writing for various publications, with the additional intention of writing a novel. Spratling did finish his novel, which was entitled Little Mexico, and waited for royalties to appear. This did not occur to the degree expected and by 1931 Spratling was in serious financial difficulty.
Spratling had made friends with Dwight Morrow, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who resided in Cuernavaca, Morelos. During a conversation bemoaning his financial state, Spratling was encouraged by Dwight Morrow to design and produce silver jewelry for the growing tourist market in Mexico. Another American, Frederick Davis, had become very successful selling Mexican silver jewelry he had designed through the Sonoran News Company, which operated concessions in train stations throughout Mexico. Spratling decided to attempt this new enterprise and recruited two silversmiths, Artemio Navarette and Alfonso Mondragon, from Iguala, a town near Taxco. These silver masters or plateros taught Spratling the basic concepts of silversmithing. The jewelry initially produced by Spratling was made at his kitchen table with silver obtained by melting silver peso coins. The designs for the silver jewelry were unique and dramatic, incorporating pre-Columbian motifs. Spratling intended to sell his jewelry through Fred Davis. This avenue for sales proved to be unnecessary with the completion of a paved highway linking Mexico City and Acapulco in 1929.
The road from Mexico City to Taxco wound over very mountainous terrain and took approximately 10 hours to navigate. Tourists would usually stop in Taxco for several days prior to resuming their journey to Acapulco on the Pacific coast. Spratling was well known in the town of Taxco for horse rentals, guide services and interpretation. Because of his frequent contact with tourists in Taxco, it was very easy to induce them to purchase silver jewelry. Spratling’s sales of jewelry boomed and he also began to market furniture, tin work, weaving and hollowware.
Spratling also began the apprentice system for silversmithing in Taxco. His first apprentices were the Castillo brothers, who came to Spratling for English lessons. At the conclusion of the lessons, the brothers would stay and observe Navarette and Mondragon making silver jewelry. The Castillo brothers expressed an interest in learning the art form and Spratling hired them, their assigned tasks increasing in complexity with their capabilities. Additional boys came forward expressing interest in learning to make jewelry and thus the informal apprentice system was initiated. Many of these early apprentices became famous in their own right as they left and started their own workshops and showrooms. Antonio Castillo, Antonio Pineda, Hector Aguilar, Enrique Ledesma and Rafael Melendez were among many notable designers who worked for Spratling prior to opening their own talleres.
Taxco silver jewelry production boomed during World War II. Because Europe was unavailable as a source of luxury goods during this time, many luxury retailers in the United States, including Marshall Fields, Bonwit Teller, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gump’s, Filene’s, Tiffany & Co. and Neiman Marcus, purchased fine silver jewelry from Taxco designers. Taxco became something like Paris in the 1920’s, with many notable visitors seeking out the town’s colonial charm, including George Gershwin, Mae West, Aldous Huxley, Dorothy Parker, Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Jack Palance, John Huston, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers and others.
Spratling incorporated his business during this time to raise additional funding for expansion. This ultimately did not work in his favor, as machinery was purchased for mass-produced silver jewelry against Spratling’s counsel. As the war fueled demand for this machine-produced jewelry, many in Taxco benefited financially from this arrangement. Spratling, however, was interested in a superior product and took a long-term approach to marketing based on quality and design. When WWII came to a conclusion, the market collapsed for the mass-produced jewelry and Spratling’s company went into bankruptcy. He retreated to an out-of-town property he had purchased previously in Taxco-el-Viejo. During this time, Spratling was invited by an old friend, Governor Ernest Gruening of Alaska, to investigate and formulate a plan for jewelry production utilizing the native Eskimo population. Spratling flew solo to Alaska in his plane and met with Alaskan officials, thereafter developing prototypes for jewelry production in Alaska. Even though seven native Alaskans were sent to Taxco for training, the project ultimately failed because of a lack of government funding. However, the experience did change Spratling’s designs, from that point forward, to a more modern international style. Silver jewelry production was resumed on a very limited basis at the Spratling ranch until William Spratling’s untimely death in a car crash in 1967.
The legacy left by William Spratling was very important, as many of the early silversmiths who worked for him developed their talleres and became famous in their own right. Jewelry designed in Taxco has drawn heavily from pre-Columbian influences and remains unique in design throughout the world.
Sources for this history of Taxco silver jewelry production are as follows:
William Spratling and the Mexican Silver Renaissance by Penny Morrill;
The Silver Gringo by Joan Mark;
Silver Masters of Mexico by Penny Morrill;
Mexican Silver 20th Century Hand-Wrought Jewelry & Metalwork by Penny Morrill and Carole Berk;
File on Spratling by William Spratling; and
The Complete Illustrated History of the Aztec & Maya by Charles Phillips.