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.
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
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.