William Spratling was born in upstate New York and lived all around the US during childhood. He went to Auburn University but never graduated, and eventually moved to New Orleans. While he lived in New Orleans, he became very close with his neighbor, William Faulkner, who had a significant influence on his drawing and writing. The influence, however, was mutual, and Faulkner wrote Spratling into many of his early novels and short stories.
Spratling first went to Mexico in 1926, where he became friends with local muralist Diego Rivera. He immediately fell in love with the Mexican countryside and its characteristic “harshness”. He went back to New Orleans where he taught at Tulane and continued his friendship with Faulkner, but the appeal of Mexico would not subside. In 1929, he decided to move there permanently, ultimately deciding on Taxco, a small old mining town in the Sierra Madre, as his destination. Taxco had a storied past, seeing prosperity and destitution in equal measure since the Spanish first found silver there in 1534. Yet, the prosperity and fame Taxco had seen in its past would pale in comparison to that which Spratling would eventually bring the town.
Spratling got into the silver business after his foray into writing hadn’t yielded the success he had hoped. He started to design pieces and would give the designs to his first hired silversmith, Artemio Navarrete, to work his magic, all the while learning silver-working himself. Around this time, Spratling was approached about teaching four local boys English. He accepted, but having the boys around the workshop all the time had other unforeseen consequences. They began to observe and take interest in the silver-working going on, and eventually Spratling offered them roles as apprentices in the workshop. This was the beginning of one of Spratling’s greatest achievements, the Taxco apprentice system. This system meant young apprentices would offer cheap labor and in return receive excellent training as they worked their way up a class system that ranged from Apprentice to Maestro. Any uncertainty about the effectiveness of this system was quelled by the success of those first four apprentices, the Castillo brothers, who would eventually found their own workshop and brand, Los Castillo.
Spratling’s design style had become a beautiful, distinct amalgamation of his appreciation for contemporary design and reverence for Pre- Columbian art and Mexican folk art. He would combine his silver with materials found locally, such as the semiprecious stones found in the mines in Taxco, tortoise shell, and wood. His designs were clean and minimal, with animal, plant, and Pre-Columbian motifs he found on the archaeological pieces he had collected. This style is in part responsible for Spratling’s rapid ascent to success. It was foreign and exotic, yet clean, modern, and above all, wearable. Yet, Spratling’s success did not last forever, and consequentially, neither did his style.
Inevitably, after experiencing great success and fame and singlehandedly causing a boom in Taxco that ushered in waves of new expatriates, artists, writers, and most importantly, money, Spratling’s company started to face financial destitution. He had sold a controlling share for need of liquid assets, and those who bought it were less interested in his well-trained artisanship and more interested in mass-produced silver items to send to the US military for use in World War II. Spratling left the company, distraught at the swift decline of his empire. This distress was exacerbated by the huge success of his former apprentices.
The ensuing years were perhaps the most formative for Spratling’s later style. He had been hired to set up an apprentice system similar to that in Taxco in Alaska with the hope of eventually creating a successful silver-working industry that worked with local materials and influences. Spratling was enthusiastic and hopeful for the project, but the government who hired him was less so, and the project did not end up working out. All was not for naught, however, as Spratling continued to develop the implementation of semiprecious stones into his pieces, adopting local stones from Alaska like jade, jasper, and quartz.
Around this same time, his style was also heavily influenced by a well-known French silver designer who came to Taxco during World War II, Jean Puiforcat. Spratling’s designs became much more influenced by classical European silver design, and in turn became much more elegant and refined, while still retaining the motifs that had made his earlier work so famous. In 1950, Spratling founded a new workshop at his ranch, where he would produce pieces for the remainder of his life, continuing the development of his design style and encouraging his apprentices to develop their own.
The Castillo brothers had shown promise in design since the early days at Las Delicias. In the first of many competitions Spratling held for the silversmiths in his workshop, Justo Castillo won first place. Antonio Castillo climbed the ladder of the Apprentice system and eventually became a Maestro in the shop. Jorge Castillo, “El Maestro Chato”, was already gaining significant renown as one of the greatest silversmiths in Taxco. They left in 1939 to form their own company with a promise to Spratling that they would not copy his work. Throughout their tenure as designers and silversmiths, Los Castillo introduced such new techniques as married metals, divorced metals, feathers with silver, Aztec mosaic or stone inlay, concha or abalone inlay, silver-encrusted onyx, pavon or blued steel, and metal painting. Needless to say, they took Spratling’s final request that every silversmith had to develop their own independent style to heart.
Another employee, Hector Aguilar, left at the same time as the Castillo brothers to start his own workshop. He had originally come to Taxco as a travel guide, but he fell in love with the silver coming out of Las Delicias and began to work there. During this time, he honed his design skills and made connections that would be vital in his independent career. After leaving, he became relatively famous quite quickly due to floral designs he did with a fellow silversmithing legend, Valentin Vidaurreta. Aguilar’s style is inspired by Aztec and Mixtec art and architecture, and this is clearly reflected in his jewelry. His pieces are dramatic and sincere, without unnecessary flourishes or extra touches.
A few years after Aguilar’s and the Castillos’ departures, another silversmith at Las Delicias, Antonio Pineda, decided to leave in pursuit of other work. Pineda first went to work in the workshop of Valentin Vidaurreta, by whom he was heavily influenced. Vidaurreta taught Pineda to work on a large scale, allowing Pineda to craft much larger, more substantial pieces. This, coupled with the claim that he eliminated all European and American influence from his work, gave his pieces a uniquely Mexican feel. He emphasized the comfort and feel of his pieces,making them less about elegance and accessory and more about forming a deeper, substantial connection with the wearer.
The silversmithing scene in Taxco was nothing short of extraordinary. Yet, it seemed to be less about the silver itself. The pieces that came out of Taxco are some of the most beautiful silver pieces ever to be produced, to be sure, but what emerged was so much more than just jewelry. One man’s vision, determination, and love of design managed to turn a poor mining town into a cultural hub and the center of a booming industry. Taxco silver brought the beauty and intrigue of Pre-Columbian Mexico to the forefront of the public eye and incited Mexican pride on a large scale. Moreover, the tale of Taxco’s rise to fame bears significant hope and promise that the world is still capable of falling head-over-heels in love with art.
Check out the video below for more about Antonio Pineda and the other Taxco Silversmiths!