Text and photos: Vicky Santana Cortés
The From a distance, the white houses with pitched red roofs seem embedded in the mountain terraces. Built on seven hills, Colonial mansions, churches, and hotels are scattered across the green landscape that rolls through the entire Sierra Madre del Sur.
The taxi from the bus terminal ―I took a deluxe bus from Mexico City― quickly climbs the narrow, winding streets to the Los Arcos Hotel, my temporary home away from home, located just steps from Taxco’s heart in the Zócalo or main square. The driver urges the taxi up the hill, but the car threatens to roll backward. Since there are no sidewalks, the driver leans on the horn to warn passersby walking alongside the road. Walking here may require a bit of bravado, but it is really the only way to enjoy the lanes of Taxco.
It is Saturday, one of the best days for silver shopping. Hundreds of artisans and sellers crowd the tianguis (traditional market) to offer the highest-quality silver jewelry at reasonable prices, attracting thousands of tourists and buyers who come here for the weekend.
Silver Capital of the World
Many centuries of stories of work, sorrow, and love have given Taxco de Alarcón ― named in honor of playwright and author Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, one of its most illustrious sons― the title of “silver capital of the world.”
An expedition led by Spaniard Hernán Cortés in 1521 found deposits of the white metal close to this former Tlahuica settlement, leading to the founding of a nearby colony to work the “King’s Pit,” as the silver mine was known. By the end of the 16th century, Taxco was known far and wide; it supplied Europe with precious metals for many years. However, new deposits in Latin America pushed Taxco into obscurity for more than two hundred years, until José de la Borda rediscovered Taxco silver in 1716.
This wealthy Spanish mine owner, who made his fortune from silver, decided to pay back the town of Taxco by building schools, highways, and other municipal works. The most significant was the Santa Prisca Church, which dominates the urban landscape. This gem of Mexican baroque architecture took eight years to finish. Aside from funding these building projects benefitting the town, De la Borda, considered the father of Taxco, was also responsible for reinstating the town’s status as a mining center. History once again isolated Taxco from the world silver trade for nearly a century, but in 1928 the town revived when it became a stop on the new Mexico City-Acapulco highway.
U.S. architect and silver artist William Spratling, who came here in 1929 to study Mexican history and culture, is another memorable Taxco figure. His initiative and knowledge allowed the so-called “father of Mexican silver” to encourage a group of young silversmiths to design and manufacture silver jewelry.
Under his tutelage, the apprentices became masters who made the city proud. In 1931, he opened Las Delicias, a school-cum-workshop that had three hundred artisans just nine years later. The use of techniques like hammering, engraving, and embossing, along with a hefty dose of creativity, resulted in unique pieces featuring special alloys, textures, and inlays of precious stones or wood.
Eighty-five years later, Taxco’s greatest legacy is reflected in its informal title of “silver capital of the world,” the more than three hundred official silversmith’s shops, the four thousand Taxco families who make a living from silver, and three generations of artisans. The scope of the enterprise is evident in the Spratling Museum —located behind Santa Prisca— and its more than 140 silver artifacts, along with original designs and drawings by the visionary master, as well as Meso-American archeological finds.
Even though a Taxco miners’ strike for better salaries nine years ago interrupted local mining, the silver industry continues to be the mainstay of the city’s economy, along with the tourism that likewise depends on silver.
Much of the raw material used now actually comes from mines in other Mexican states, such as Zacatecas. The ore is sent to Monterrey to be separated and smelted, after which long-established companies distribute the granalla, or pure silver, to jewelers in Taxco.
It is no surprise to learn that the steep streets of this Colonial town are packed with workshops and shops —more or less one every thirty feet— devoted to the manufacture or sale of silver items. The streets also hold a sprinkling of hotels and restaurants.
The air of Taxco pulsates to the beeping horns of the white VW Beetles used as taxis, accompanied by the whirr of polishers and the thudding of hammers. These latter sounds issue from the silver workshops, some of which are small, like that of the Avilez brothers, who have been in business since 1954. Ten family members spanning three generations work in the family concern. Another small business is El Diamante, where Pablo López has worked silver since the age of twelve and passed the talent onto his children.
There are bigger workshops like the Taller de los Ballesteros, where family members have become renowned designers who export their products to markets around the world. Founded in 1937, this is one of the largest workshops, with seven departments employing more than forty people and producing not only conventional jewelry, but sculptures, altarpieces, dishes, candelabras, lamps, and more.
Avenida de los Plateros and the area near Plaza Borda are home to the most famous local shops, which offer all manner of silver articles accompanied by certificates of authenticity. Certified jewelry can also be found at the Centro Joyero and in the tianguis at a good price, especially for wholesale purchases. Arm yourself with comfortable shoes, a hat, and sufficient water and amble through the hilly streets as you search the plazas and hidden byways for that elusive “perfect” item. You will develop a feel for what is known as “Taxco design” after browsing a certain number of shops. As might be expected, the characteristic local jewelry is quite different from Italian or Thai articles.
Taxco’s silver jewelry tradition has gained more prestige outside Mexico, due to the work of jewelers like Daniel Espinosa de los Monteros. He has spent more than twenty years grafting innovation and daring onto Mexican silver, earning his place at the cutting edge of Latin American design. He works with natural silver, adding washes of yellow, rose, or white gold, and embedding precious and semi-precious stones, turning the pieces into works of art. His brand has spread so far that he now has shops in Puerto Rico, certain U.S. cities (through Saks), Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama City, and Russia (coming soon).
Taxco Minister of Tourism Zeus Rodríguez explains that silver work is divided into three categories: silversmithing, where craftspeople create art pieces, sculptures, and other elaborate items; designer pieces made by renowned silversmiths whose names have become national brands and grace fashion shows (such as Óscar Figueroa, Sergio Bustamante, or Daniel Espinoza); and commercial silver items such as the conventional bracelets, necklaces, earrings, rings, and pendants on offer in nearly every jewelry shop in Taxco.
Keeping Art in the Family
There are three Alicias: grandmother, mother, and granddaughter. Granddaughter Alicia Anhalí Gómez, a 29-year-old Taxco native, is a young jewelry designer who forms part of a new generation of silversmiths. Her grandparents began the business sixty years ago, and her mother has been designing for thirty years.
Having grown up among bits and pieces of silver, granddaughter Alicia continues the family tradition after studying jewelry design in Milan. Upon her return to Taxco, she furthered her apprenticeship with renowned silver masters who taught her techniques like embossing, lost wax, and others needed to explore the full potential of silversmithing.
Her assembly workshop and store can now be found in the same location where William Spratling’s Las Delicias operated seventy years before. Dating to 1920, the house is located on Calle del Verdugo, just across from Santa Prisca Church. The sad tale of the Verdugo family is part of the history of Casa Roja (Red House). It is said that the family may have chosen suicide rather than witness the mother’s slow death from a painful disease. Since the house was considered haunted, it stood empty for many years until Alicia Anhalí’s mother bought it.
Thanks in part to its excellent location, the house is now one of the most-visited silver shops in town. This is where the designer creates her pieces, which are then produced by local artisans to be sold, thus spreading the fame of her Casa Roja brand. Three years ago, she began exporting jewelry to other countries and her art is a feature of national and international jewelry fairs.
“I would like people to understand that there is more to Taxco than mass production. We have many silver artisans doing quality work, and young designers are trying new things here,” notes Alicia.
Although handicrafts wrought in this precious metal are the principal lure of Taxco, admiring the Colonial architecture, strolling the cobblestone streets, visiting churches and museums, and enjoying the delicious cuisine and fine hotel amenities in a temperate climate of 64 to 68 °F also draw people to this “magical town” in the Mexican state of Guerrero.