an interview from Taxco

by Gabrielle Stodd

The following essay with its accompanying photographs is an account of several days spent in the charming hilltop town of Taxco, home of the Mexican Silver Renaissance. This pueblo is an interesting place to visit for the casual traveler and a fascinating stop for the Mexican silver collector.
Taxco el Alarcon is a picturesque town with a history that pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish. Its enchanting present day appearance is decidedly Spanish colonial. It owes the success of its preservation to strict regulations governing the building and renovation of any structure in the historic downtown. These regulations have ensured buildings their colonial design-- low structures painted white with red tiled roofs and adornments of black steel.  Taxco has also kept its thin cobbled streets and walkways. Taxco's climate is mild. Her streets and markets buzz with activity.

Taxco Panorama

A thin, cobbled street in Taxco

Taxco walkway - Adding to Taxco's charm and colonial atmosphere are the thin cobbled streets found in the historic zone.

Another Taxco walkway

Taxco grillwork - Taxco building adornamentation is stricly controlled by local regulations.

Taxco's public buses are converted VW vans, one of the few motor vehicles to travel on the local streets. These vans are also referred to as "burritos" little mules in literature.

Santa Prisca still undergoing extensive renovation. Here one of her towers is being wrapped in scaffolding.

Taxco - Healthy and Vibrant. More signs of what we perceived as a healthy, vibrant community were the regular celebrations.

Taxco's Toritos - Taxco is famous for her fireworks. These toritos are carried
 on a man's shoulders. There are fireworks placed throughout the structure which,
 once lit, spin and fire during the celebrations.

Taxco - Futuro Cuetero. A young man helping prepare the toritos
 for the evening's celebrations.

Nuestro Senor de los Plateros - Carved bulto of Jesus as the Patron Saint 
of the Silver Smiths with silver offerings at his feet.

The fascinating history of Taxco parallels in large part that of Mexico proper.  Remnants of that history are found easily in modern Taxco. As a Mexican silver collector, one can also find vestiges of the Mexican Silver Renaissance, the era when silver designers like William Spratling, Hector Aguilar, and Antonio Castillo (to name a few) designed,  produced, and sold silver. 

The names of Taxco’s silver maestros are evident throughout the town. Either in surname or in full name, they grace the signs above entrances to hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops.

Taxco, then and now - The Building that once housed Spratling's Las Delicias Taller 
now serves as a funeral

Of course, Taxco has undergone significant changes since the 1930s.  During my visit, the town felt vibrant, healthy, and alive.  According to what I had read, however, it is a town struggling with new influences, competition, and economic forces that threaten its traditional ways of silver production, design and sales. An excellent discussion of the commercial challenges facing Taxco today can be found in William Spratling and the Mexican Silver Renaissance, pages 126-142. Therein, Gobi Stromberg summarizes these challenges as the following: the demise of the essentially patriarchal taller system in the 1970s; the spreading out and flattening of silver production to familial groups/units, each of which is competing against every other for highly coveted manufacturing contracts; the rise of silver object production in other parts of the world; and an increasing mechanization in the production of silver objects.

Water Fountain - Spratling's Las Delicias might be a funeral home, but his influence is still evident in this water fountain.

Hubert Harmon's Outer Gates - Happily these wonderful Harmon doors are intact and visible, though they also show the ravages of graffiti.

Hubert Harmon's Delighful Lock – Also still present for all to enjoy.

I wondered if any of these powerful economic forces would be superficially evident. There appeared to be large numbers of wholesale and mass produced silver objects and it  was also very easy to find stores that sold silver pieces manufactured outside of Mexico. Conversations with four different Taxquenians put a personal face on the impact of the economic complexities that Stromberg identifies.

We spoke first with Betty while eating at her new café. Betty is a young woman who holds dual United States and Mexican citizenship. Before establishing her café, she toured much of Mexico. Taxco seemed to offer the best possibility of economic success for herself and her fledgling café.  Thus, she settled there, invested her savings, and opened her café.  (By the way, if you happen to visit Taxco, do stop by CafÈ Sasha, grab a delicious cappuccino and say hello to Miss Pinkie, her dog.)

Sergio Manuel Gomez Carbajal expresses a similar optimism about his future in Taxco. A grand nephew of Antonio Pineda, Sergio is a silver designer and silver smith whose designs are varied and complex. He creates his silver works completely by hand and utilizes a variety of methods including repoussé (a type of silver work that is overly labor intensive for the majority of silver smiths) and assembly (a technique created by Antonio Pineda and discussed below.)

His pieces are lovely and often dramatic. Each design and subsequent silver piece, that can require anywhere from thirty hours to several weeks to complete, is unique--always the only one made from the design. 

Sergio's commitment to working by hand in the old traditions of excellence is beginning to garner attention. He has won several awards throughout the Republic of Mexico, including First Prize in the Feria Nacional de la Plata in 2002.   

Sergio Manuel Gomez Carbajal and his award winning hand carved sculpture in amber with applied metals and stones. Silver tail feathers (hand done) are created in repoussé and contain a hidden writing pen.

Detail of Gomez Carbajal's amber piece. Wing embellishments are removable and function as earrings.

Detail of repoussé hummingbird 
on necklace by Gomez Carbajal

Gomez Carbajal cuff in silver and gold with hand carved stone. 
Multiple silver techniques were employed and all were by hand.

We spoke at length with Victoria, a single mother and shop clerk at a retail silver store. Victoria feels trapped by the economic pressures of Taxco's silver market.

Victoria observes the steady decline of economic incentives and rewards for the lone silver artisan living and working in Taxco. Tourists continue to visit during the December to April season and are eager to buy silver pieces, but she sees that the biggest influence on what they buy is not the quality of design and production, but rather the price. They look at a piece of silver and are not at all impressed that it is hand made (as opposed to mass produced by a machine) and that it was hand smoothed and finished--all of this taking hours and hours to achieve. These buyers will observe, "Well, the place up the street can sell it to me for less so I think I will buy it there." In that instant, in that very decision, the downward pressure begins, as does the pressure to mechanize. The lone silversmith (or even silversmithing family) cannot sell enough to justify staying true to the tradition of handcrafted silver.

Sadly, Victoria drives this point home -- she is trained as a silversmith (and comes from multi-generations of silversmiths) but makes her living as a clerk. Though she is from Taxco and speaks no English she is contemplating a move to the United States where she believes that better opportunities await her and her son.

On the question of Taxco's demise, we also spoke with Javier Ruiz, a Taxco native and the son of Rafael "El Chino" Ruiz, one of Antonio Pineda's most senior and talented silversmiths. Javier spent years working in Don Antonio's Taxco store and to this day is a daily business associate and friend of Maestro Pineda. Javier agrees that there is an influx of foreign-produced silver pieces. He also notes that there are great pressures pushing Taxco's silversmiths to abandon time worn techniques of creating hand-wrought silver pieces for much faster, cost effective mechanized production. Instead of seeing these circumstances as dire and potentially catastrophic, he sees them as enriching a local economy that is now more diverse than ever : a consumer of silver in Taxco now has a variety of choices including chains from Italy;  trinkets from the Orient; locally made, machine produced remembrances;  and wonderful, creative, unique works of art entirely wrought by hand. According to Javier, Taxco is a town of great resilience and will survive these recent economic forces.

Wholesale beads in Taxco store -
 machine made in Mexico.

Chains for sale by the meter - machine made and imported from Italy.

Wholesale silver jewelry – all pieces are machine made and finished.

Taxco street scene

Taxco is a town of great resilience but some ways remain intact. Bartering is still a part of daily life. If one needs to buy a pair of shoes for one’s children and is short of money, you can still pay with a silver nugget.

I arrived at Antonio Pineda’s office armed with a photographer, a long list of questions, and a bag full of vintage Pineda pieces. He was an enthusiastic and generous host.




The outside of Don Antonio's office

Don Antonio told us about his parents. His mother was a fine embroiderer and his father was a musician. When very young, Antonio went to work for William Spratling. His talent must have been evident because in a very short time, he became a first apprentice.



Antonio Pineda circa 1930's, 
photo taken by William Spratling.

Maestro Pineda said that the experience of working with Spratling sparked an interest in and desire to work with silver of his own design. He enjoyed a good relationship with Spratling, but soon felt limited working there. A strong desire to express his own creative impulses caused him to leave Spratling's taller.

In history there are moments where great artists and great patrons seem to be in the same place and on the same page. Examples that come to mind include Renaissance Florence and Lorenzo Medici and Renaissance Rome and Pope Julian X. The great creativity that was in full force in Taxco during the 1940s and 50s was fueled by visiting Americans and, in the case of Antonio Pineda’s early success, by certain visitors from San Francisco and by Gumps. He still recalls with great pride his show at the Legion of Honor and Gumps where all his pieces were sold.

Antonio Pineda in his office today.

Don Antonio demonstrates his mastery of silver and in short time
 has reconfigured his neckpiece for a perfect fit.

Don Antonio checking his adjustments

Early silver and azur malachite necklace by Antonio Pineda, ca. 1950's.
 Adjustments by Don Antonio included fit and reworking the azur malachite
 area to give it greater depth and movement.

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to continue reading, please click here for part II



Article by Gabrielle Stodd
photos by  Eduardo Patiño Gonzalez and courtesy of Gabrielle Stodd

Web design by Marbeth Schon

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