William Spratling and the pioneers of Mexico’s silver renaissance

William Spratling and the pioneers of Mexico’s silver renaissance

As painters, writers and musicians of the 1920s confronted a brave new Mexico in the wake of the nation’s revolution, silver artists engaged with a reinvention of their own. Illustrated with pieces offered in Christie’s Jewels Online, 10-19 April

In 1926 a young associate professor of architecture, William Spratling, arrived in Taxco, a pretty colonial town in the mountains of Guerrero state between Mexico City and Acapulco, to study its baroque architecture. In the wake of a bloody revolution that had raged for a decade between 1910 and 1920, Mexico was ready to embrace renewal: artists and artisans across the newly democratised nation were inspired to re-examine their national identity and cultural traditions.

Artists including Juan O’Gorman, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo descended upon Taxco. Spratling — a New Yorker whose literary aspirations had already brought him into contact with writers such as William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson —became friends with Rivera, and moved to Taxco permanently in 1929.

William Spratling malachite and silver pendant necklace. Dimensions 48.5 cm length, 5.5 cm drop. Estimate $1,000-1,500. Offered in 
Christies Jewels Online, 10-18 April 2019, Online

William Spratling malachite and silver pendant necklace. Dimensions: 48.5 cm length, 5.5 cm drop. Estimate: $1,000-1,500. Offered in Christie's Jewels Online, 10-18 April 2019, Online

A couple of years later, in 1931, the American ambassador Dwight Morrow remarked to Spratling over breakfast that, while Taxco’s silver mines had yielded thousands of pounds of silver over the centuries, little of it seemed to have remained in Mexico. Spratling was inspired to establish his first taller, or studio, and the legend of what is popularly regarded as Mexico’s silver capital — the crucible of stunning pieces of jewellery, flatware and decorative objects — was born.

The power of Pre-Columbian design

Spratling had been introduced to pre-Columbian and Mesoamerican art during his time at Tulane University, and these motifs proved a strong influence on his early silver jewellery and decorative objects. Spratling’s studio, which he named Taller de las Delicias (Workshop of the Delights), grew rapidly, and by the late 1930s he was employing several hundred artisans to produce his designs. From there they found their way to North America through the Montgomery Ward catalogue, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Clockwise from top an amethyst, jade and silver crown, by Antonio Pineda. Sold for $6,250. A silver and inlaid onyx necklace, by Antonio Pineda. Sold for $6,000. A jade and cultured pearl ‘Eagle’ brooch, by Antonio Pineda. Sold for $8,750. All offered in Jewels Online, 6-14 February 2019

Clockwise from top: an amethyst, jade and silver crown, by Antonio Pineda. Sold for $6,250. A silver and inlaid onyx necklace, by Antonio Pineda. Sold for $6,000. A jade and cultured pearl ‘Eagle’ brooch, by Antonio Pineda. Sold for $8,750. All offered in Jewels Online, 6-14 February 2019

‘The father of contemporary Mexican silver’, as Spratling came to be known, incorporated native materials such as amethyst, turquoise, coral, rosewood and abalone into his creations. Depictions of real and mythical animals, and pre-Columbian motifs of discs, balls, straps and rope designs, were typical.

Antonio Pineda set of aventurine quartz and silver jewellery. Dimensions 39.1 cm length, 2.4 cm at widest point (necklace); 17.8 cm inner circumference, 2.4 cm width (bracelet). Estimate $1,200-1,800. Offered in 
Christies Jewels Online, 10-18 April 2019, Online

Antonio Pineda set of aventurine quartz and silver jewellery. Dimensions: 39.1 cm length, 2.4 cm at widest point (necklace); 17.8 cm inner circumference, 2.4 cm width (bracelet). Estimate: $1,200-1,800. Offered in Christie's Jewels Online, 10-18 April 2019, Online

Besides pioneering a new concept of Mexican silver design, Spratling also developed an apprenticeship system to train new silversmiths. Those who showed promise worked under the direction of maestros, and many would later go on to open their own shops.

Antonio Pineda

One of the first of Spratling’s apprentices to strike out on his own was Antonio Pineda. As celebrities such as John F. Kennedy, George Gershwin, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and Patricia Highsmith began to flock to Taxco — all of them happy to take back home with them a silver souvenir — Pineda established himself as one of the first major modernist silver artists. Pineda’s own taller  was so successful, and his designs in such demand, that the original staff of 10 smiths quickly swelled to 100.

Birdcage amethyst and onyx bracelet, by Antonio Pineda. Sold for $6,250 in Jewels Online, 6-14 February 2019

'Birdcage' amethyst and onyx bracelet, by Antonio Pineda. Sold for $6,250 in Jewels Online, 6-14 February 2019

No other jeweller in Taxco used as many costly semi-precious stones, or set them with as much ingenuity, skill, and variety as did Pineda. Only the most talented of silversmiths could master the challenges posed by setting gemstones in silver at the high temperature necessary to work the metal. Pineda, however, managed to set gems with as little metal touching them as possible, giving them a free or floating look while still holding them firmly in place.

In 1944 Pineda’s jewellery was exhibited alongside that of Georg Jensen at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Soon afterwards, Richard Gump purchased Pineda’s entire collection for his department stores in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

Pineda’s reputation as a trailblazing designer continues to grow. In 2008 the Fowler Museum at UCLA staged Silver Seduction: The Art of Antonio Pineda. The exhibition celebrated Pineda’s ‘creativity, the innovation and subtlety of his designs, the exquisite incorporation of gemstones, and his virtuoso engineering skills’. More than 200 designs were displayed, entirely curated from the collection of Cindy Tietze and Stuart Hodosh.

Héctor Aguilar and Taller Border

Héctor Aguilar first became acquainted with William Spratling when he began to bring tourists from his native Mexico City to Taller de las Delicias. It was in Taxco that he met his wife, Louise Cartwright, in 1937. After a short period under Spratling’s tutelage, Aguilar bought an imposing colonial residence in the centre of Taxco and established Taller Border.

Héctor Aguilar set of amethyst and silver jewellery. Dimensions 42.5 cm length, 4.2 cm width (necklace); 16.5 cm length and 18.5 cm length, 4.0 cm width (bracelets). Estimate $1,500-2,000. Offered in 
Christies Jewels Online, 10-18 April 2019, Online

Héctor Aguilar set of amethyst and silver jewellery. Dimensions: 42.5 cm length, 4.2 cm width (necklace); 16.5 cm length and 18.5 cm length, 4.0 cm width (bracelets). Estimate: $1,500-2,000. Offered in Christie's Jewels Online, 10-18 April 2019, Online

Aguilar found inspiration in Aztec and Mixtec art and architecture, and his work quickly became not only very popular, but also highly collectible. Hundreds of silversmiths and other artisans trained at Taller Border, and the shop rapidly established itself as one of Mexico’s leading silver retail merchants.

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Fred Davis and other leading designers of the Silver Renaissance

Today there are more than 10,000 silversmiths at work in Taxco. Yet while a small group of fine designers still create hand-wrought silver, the bulk of the work they are producing lacks the design sensibility and technical virtuosity for which Spratling, Pineda and Aguilar became renowned. It is these names — alongside that of Fred Davis, the silversmith whose Mexico City shop also displayed early works by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo — that are most sought-after by collectors.

Other leading designers associated with the ‘Silver Renaissance’ include Valentin Vidaurreta, Enrique Ledesma, Hubert Harmon, Antonio Castillo and Margot Van Voorhies Carr.

From 6-14 February, exemplary works by William Spratling, Antonio Pineda, Hector Aguilar and Fred Davis, from the collection of Cindy Tietze and Stuart Hodosh, will be offered as part of Christie’s Jewels Online sale. The sale represents a rare chance to acquire a wearable work of art which reflects a dynamic chapter of Mexico’s proud heritage.