Taxco (pronounced (“tass-ko”) is an enchanting colonial town about 160 km south of Mexico City with white-stucco buildings, red-tiled roofs, and steep cobbled streets that run anywhere and everywhere. It’s a national monument and a well preserved one at that. In the center of town is a small park (Plaza Borda) and bordering it is a cathedral (Parroquia de Santa Prisca) famous for its tall pink towers.
This was my third visit to the town. The first time it was simply on impulse. I talked my (then) husband and kids into taking a local bus there from Acapulco, “just a day trip”, I promised. Even if the bus had not broken down we would have needed more than a day. So we found a hotel and stayed the night and it was my introduction to the real Mexico and I’ve never looked back.
A few years later I visited with a ‘shopper’ and we spent hours going through the shops that sold silver jewelry. We were not alone for news about the town’s charms had spread and tour buses had arrived. The narrow streets thankfully kept the buses in the outskirts and even the Beetle taxies that are everywhere are challenged navigating the turns. Perhaps that’s why taxi drivers open the car door to let you out by pulling a chain.
This year I was staying in Cuernavaca—an easy bus ride away—and upon reading that Taxco’s silver industry had been inspired by a young American decided to make a visit to find out more. His name was William Spratling and his contribution was such that he has been called the “Father of Mexican Silver”.
Spratling, an architect by profession, went to Mexico in the late 1920s to research and write articles on colonial architecture. This was a time when Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, Frieda Kahlo and Miguel Covarrubias were making international inroads and Spratling became part of the art scene.
Spratling decided to stay in Mexico but needed to earn a living. The American ambassador, Dwight Morrow, suggested he visit Taxco, a town where silver had been mined for 400 years but had fallen on tough times. Spratling bought a little house in Taxco called Las Delicias, hired an experienced goldsmith, and in 1930 started a modest silver workshop that led to “a revolution in silver design”.
His great talent was design, combining pre-Columbian images with art-deco styles. He took on local apprentices and over time a community of designers, silversmiths, salespeople and administrators evolved. Spratling himself was considered to be a brilliant salesman with extensive connections and was successful in expanding the operation into a wholesale business and having his goods in high-end stores in the United States. He encouraged his employees to open their own stores.
I was interested in seeing how silver jewelry was made so when I arrived at the bus station in Taxco I asked a taxi driver to take me to a silver factory. The guy spoke almost no English (and me no Spanish) but I ended up at Zanfeld‘s where the sales manager, Jose Manuel, agreed to show me around.
It seems the owner of Zanfeld, Zeev Zang, was one of the early craftsmen, starting in the industry when he was just 6 years old and a master by the age of 11. He opened Zanfeld in 1992.
Manuel showed me how a mold of the jewelry is injected with wax, surrounded by plaster, placed in an oven to melt the wax, and silver injected into the hollow where the wax had been.
Manuel spoke glowingly about Spratling’s contribution and said I should visit Las Delicias (Spratling’s former house and workshop and now a restaurant) and the Spratling Museum (containing works that Spratling had contributed) to learn more.
It was a steep but short climb up to the address that Manuel gave me for Las Delicias and I had to rely on friendly locals to help me find the way.
I was the only visitor and after purchasing and eating a pasta lunch was shown around the living room where there were photos of Sterling and craftsmen in his workshop.
I then went back down the hill to the larger museum that’s close to the cathedral. I would have liked to visit El Rancho Spratling, Sterling’s second house and workshop, but was told it was closed for renovations.
Before I caught the bus back to Cuernavaca I took a taxi ride up to Cristo Monumental, a relatively new landmark overlooking the town. The ride up is interesting, the area not as gentrified as the one in the center, and the views along the way and at the top spectacular. I would have chosen to walk down but for the mangy looking dogs that prowled the streets.
Further information about Spratling can be found on this website.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014