Jewelry Journey Podcast
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is Dr. Penny Morrill. Penny is an expert on Mexican silver, including jewelry. She’s the author of several books on the subject of Mexican silver. Her most recent book is called “Dreaming in Silver,” and if you want to know anything about Mexican silver, she’s the one to ask. Today, she’s going to tell us about her own jewelry journey. Penny, welcome to the program.
Penny: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here, Sharon.
Sharon: It’s so great to have you. Congratulations on your wonderful book.
Penny: Thank you. It was quite a journey.
Sharon: Besides the fact that it’s so interesting, the amount of research that had to go into it is amazing. Tell us about your jewelry journey. Was it Mexican silver that led you into the world of jewelry, or did jewelry lead you into Mexican silver?
Penny: Sharon, to tell you the truth, it was actually a quest to know more about my grandparents. They had the first tourist hotel in Taxco, Mexico. They were from Texas, and it was right after the depression—well, it was during the depression; it was in 1931. They decided to refurbish this colonial mansion that had fallen into ruin. That same year, in 1931, William Spratling arrived to open his workshop. My grandparents were actually the first to commission 10 candlesticks, lanterns, silverware and large pieces in silver, furniture and textiles from Spratling’s workshop. They were very good friends.
Sharon: Wow! Did you grow up with those objects around your house?
Penny: This is another interesting story about it. What happened is when World War II arrived, in those days, when you moved, you packed into barrels.
Sharon: Into barrels, did you say?
Penny: Yes. They had packed all their possessions into barrels to come back to the United States for World War II. One of the people who worked for them in the hotel was so devastated they were leaving that he kept one of the barrels. That barrel had a particularly important meaning to the family because it had a lot of personal photographs and papers and silver. It’s funny; every time I go down to Taxco, I look around thinking one day I’m going to find this cache of photographs of my mother and my grandparents, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Sharon: What is the name of the town?
Penny: It’s Taxco, T-a-x-c-o. Taxco was a silver mining town, but it certainly was not a silver design town until William Spratling arrived.
Sharon: Interesting. We’ve all heard of Taxco, but you’re saying it as somebody who speaks the language would.
Sharon: I presume you speak Spanish.
Penny: Yes. I got a translator for the book because it was way too much for me to try to translate. There were a lot of people involved in making this book a reality, and one of them was a very fine translator. The others were several fine photographers and lenders, people who leant their work to be in the book.
Sharon: We should let everybody know the book is both in English and Spanish—I mean in the same book, so you don’t have to buy a separate book.
Sharon: Was jewelry ever of interest to you before this?
Penny: I wasn’t a real jewelry hound. It’s interesting. After I got interested in my grandparents’ story, I would buy travel books from the 30s and there would be little articles about my grandparents—“Oh, this wonderful hotel, you must stay there”—and I made a collection of these travel books. One time, I was in an antique store and I looked in the case—my mother and grandmother both had a few pieces of silver from Taxco, so I looked in the case and saw this bracelet, and I was like, “Wow, that looks really familiar,” so I bought it and that was it. That was the moment.
Sharon: You got the bug.
Penny: Yeah, really bad.
Sharon: What is it that attracts you to Mexican silver?
Penny: I think primarily the great variety, and the constant innovation in design and technique. Taxco is unique in the world and pretty much in the history of humanity, in that this one little mountain town developed hundreds of new designs. In 1950 alone, Los Castillo developed 500 new designs. It was an outpouring of creativity and variety, because every designer in Taxco had his or her own vision and they came from other places. Margot came from California. Spratling came directly from Tulane University in New Orleans. Then there were the Mexicans, who were great designers. So, you had this wonderful energy. You had money, because the tourists came and spent money, and with the money these people were able to extend themselves financially to keep on creating. What you have is this perfect scenario, where there’s this explosion of great design in one little place. It’s pretty amazing to think about.
Sharon: It is, yes. I’ve traveled to Mexico, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to Taxco. Is that true today? Is it still as creative?
Penny: It’s still a silver town, no question. A lot of what’s produced there now is more, I would say, an industrial look. In other words, there’s some handwork applied, but a lot of it has to do with presses, machines, that sort of thing. However, I want to make clear there are some incredibly fine designers still in Taxco. Actually, their work has been chosen to participate in LUTE, the big jewelry show in New York. They’ve also had some real attention in museum exhibits, so there continue to be great designers in Taxco.
It’s a good thing, because they are doing wonderful things. I just participated in this wonderful conference that was put on by the university in Taxco. I gave a talk, and others gave talks, on particular designers or aspects of Taxco silver. Then they had a maestro teach the technique of producing, let’s say, a Margot enamel. The whole point of this conference was to instill in the younger generation these amazing technical and design abilities, so that it will be an ongoing industry. I do think there is quite a bit of energy and life there, and I feel very positive about it.
The other thing I will tell you is that there’s a tremendous effort right now to put together a museum of Mexican silver in Taxco. This is a long time coming. I’m really hopeful here. They’ve done so much thinking about it. It’s to continue this kind of teaching and outreach to keep this industry alive, keep good design alive, and hold on to these fabulous techniques that have been developed over—well, we’re almost at a hundred years now, because Spratling arrived in 1931 and we’re at 2020. It’s amazing to think about.
Sharon: Yeah, you don’t think of it as being a hundred years.
Penny: Exactly. I’m amazed. I was thinking about it this morning and I was like, “Wait a minute. We’re almost at the hundred-year mark.” It’s an interesting place. One of the big problems right now is it’s getting too big for the natural resources, so there’s a constant problem with water, that kind of thing, but I think they’ll solve it. They’ll figure it out, but that is one of the issues right now.
Sharon: Is sustainability entering into the picture?
Penny: The town has grown enormously, but what I would say in terms of sustainability—that’s an interesting question. One of the aspects of this conference was to discuss a better approach to techniques so there would be less toxic materials used in treating the silver. In other words, they’re moving in all the right directions, in my opinion.
Sharon: That’s good to hear. There was a renaissance when Spratling came. What is the Mexican Silver Renaissance, and what were some of the factors that came together to create it? Was it moribund before this?
Penny: Yes, frankly. I’ll just say yes. The thing about the Mexican Silver Renaissance is it parallels the 1910 revolution in Mexico, and what happened after the revolution is you had this outpouring of art, a focus on art. You had Diego Rivera and Orozco and Siqueiros painting their murals, which had a tremendous impact on North Americans. They went down there in droves. Then you had the great photographers like Tina Modotti and others who were doing phenomenal work. This was a draw. The other thing that excited people in the U.S. was they wanted to be present to view the great revolution among the poorest classes in Mexico. It was a very difficult time for the United States, so they looked to Mexico to see if there was a model for them to replicate in the U.S. In fact, one of the things that did follow north was the WPA and murals in the Post Offices. That was a direct influence of the Mexican mural.
So, with the Silver Renaissance, you see a focus on production, and William Spratling was the great visionary for this. In fact, I would say that he’s one of the great visionaries of the 20th century in terms of what he accomplished. He initiated this workshop in 1931 with two goldsmiths and a dozen young men, and the factors that led to his success, in my opinion, were the principles of good design. He was an architect and a draftsman, so he was very keen about proper balance and format and style. He was particularly inspired by Pre-Columbian Art. He was a collector of Pre-Columbian art, and he felt that Pre-Columbian design and imagery were appropriate for Mexico and Mexican silver. He also replicated, in a way—what Diego Rivera had done with the murals, he was doing in silver. They were basically celebrating Mexico’s glorious past and bringing it to the 20th century and looking towards the future.
The other thing that was critical was the hierarchy of ability. This was something I felt very strongly about in the research I’ve done, and that is every person in the workplace had importance. As you attained more and more ability, you rose in the hierarchy and became a maestro. Then, you would supervise these young men—there were no women; it was thought to be bad luck—and these young men would reveal to the maestro their particular ability. Then, the maestro would develop it and that young man would become a maestro. The whole idea was to develop technical skills as well as stylistic ones.
Finally, the other thing Spratling did, which was genius, was what he did with marketing. It’s unbelievable what this man was able to accomplish. He sold silver in the Montgomery Ward catalogue in the 40s on a massive scale. One day I met this woman who was a big deal in the art history world. I was at a conference, and I looked over at her. I had my eagle eye out, and I see that she is wearing a very important Spratling necklace. I went over and I said, “What can you tell me about your necklace?” She said, “Well, I don’t know very much about it, but my husband bought it for me at the Piex in Panama,” and I said, “The Piex in Panama?” Spratling had said in one of his articles that he had 120 outlets for his silver. I always thought that was a rather ridiculous exaggeration, but when I met this woman and found out that her husband had bought it as a gift at the Piex, I was like, “O.K., I get it. He was selling silver all over the world in the Piexes.”
Sharon: How did they produce this much?
Penny: It was all by hand. It was really tough for him. During the war, he had 500 men working for him. Los Castillo had about 350; Hector Aguilar had as many. There was a huge run on production because of the tremendous demand. These guys got big commissions from the military to produce ID bracelets and insignia in silver, that sort of thing. They had a commission with the government, and that must have been how Spratling got into Piex. Also, there was a big demand for quality, elegant goods on the part of North Americans who could not buy tea sets from France, so they bought lots of tea sets from Mexico, but that’s a whole other story. I’ll tell you briefly what happened in the 80s, which is that silver went sky high in value. People started melting the silver down and putting it into blocks, so a lot of the tea sets and big pieces were melted down. There’s no real knowing how much of that came into the States, because a lot of it was melted and made into blocks in the 80s. It’s kind of crazy.
Sharon: Yes, it’s sad. Who’s your favorite? You’ve researched all the biggies in terms of Mexican silver. Do you have a favorite?
Penny: I would say I particularly admire William Spratling and I love his work. In fact, I have a necklace by Spratling on right now. I tell people that I even wear Mexican silver when I’m out gardening. I wear silver all the time.
Anyway, the other person I’m particularly fond of is Margot Van Voorhies. Her story is so compelling, and the early work she did for Antonio Castillo is some of the strongest work. When Antonio Castillo married her and they decided to go out on their own, William Spratling gave Antonio his blessing, but he said, “There is one thing I would ask, and that is you not copy me,” and both Margot and Antonio reassured him they would not. Believe me, they did not. Margot’s imagination went crazy. She did magnificent work during that period, and when she was on her own, the work she did in enamel is some of the finest in the world. I know enamel collectors, and they prize their Margot pieces big time. It’s amazing what this woman was able to accomplish.
She was quite something. Somebody should do a documentary on Margot. I mean it. She is quite a tough lady, and she lived through a lot of things. She was a child at the time that San Francisco burned, and her house burned to the ground. She was alive in the United States when women got the vote. She traveled to Mexico on her own and set herself up. She was quite something.
Sharon: Wow! How she did learn enamel? How did enamel come into the picture?
Penny: It’s interesting; it was the act of a visionary person. She had lived in San Francisco so she knew cloisonné, the Chinese work, when this man showed up selling enamels. He was a salesman, and he came to her workshop to show her the possibilities. She instantly realized the potential there, and she developed this whole technique and was aided by Sigi Pineda, another of the designers. Sigi worked for her at the time, and the two of them put together the method of enameling they still do in Taxco today. It was actually one of the workshops they did as part of this conference I spoke at. Yeah, enamel is amazing.
Sharon: You mentioned that there’s energy in designers working today. Who should we keep our eye on?
Penny: There are several. I would recommend Carmen Tapia.
Sharon: Who is that?
Penny: Carmen Tapia, T-a-p-i-a. Then there’s a couple, Eduardo Herrera and his wife Cristina Romo. Cristina is Antonio Castillo’s granddaughter, and Carmen’s father is a very famous designer as well. Then there’s a young woman; her name Priscila Canales. They’re really doing very innovative and interesting work. You can find them easily by Googling them. They all have websites, and I would recommend that you take a look. I think Carmen and Priscila are on Facebook. I’m not sure about Eduardo, but they definitely all have websites that are worth checking out. Beautiful work.
Sharon: I’ve seen Herrera’s work, and I’ve just looked over it.
Penny: I think I included several of their designs in Dreaming in Silver. Several other young people are working in Taxco today. One of the famous ones in Taxco is a man named Michelangelo—I love that—and he is incredibly talented. Again, the real issue for the people in Taxco right now is finding the proper marketplace. Perhaps that’s a problem for many designers all over the world, but it’s a shame that it’s so difficult to reach out and find these fine designers. It should be easier, but I think there are some ideas cropping up that may make this easier in the future. I’m hoping that with this museum in Taxco, there may be an effort also to market good design.
Sharon: I would think that social media could help. You can look at things on Instagram and overcome the language barrier.
Penny: I think so, although what they really need is someone with a marketing background who can give it some snap and appeal, so people go, “Oh wow, look at that!” Right now it’s not like that.
Sharon: You may be the one who’s the marketer, actually.
Penny: I’ve done it. I have. I’ve tried.
Sharon: What else would you like us to know about Mexican silver?
Penny: There is one thing I would really like everyone to know about, and that is the Sutherland and Taxco Collection at Tulane University’s Latin American Library. This collection, as well as the Ulrich Family Spratling Collection, together they comprise an amazing amount of documents, design drawings, all kinds of letters, photographs, paintings, magazines, everything you can image that relates to Taxco and the Silver Renaissance. This is something I initiated. I’ve donated quite a bit of material over the years to Tulane’s Latin American Library. Already we have one young woman who’s written a master’s thesis on William Spratling and Pre-Columbian art. There’s another person right now who wants to do something on the development of tourism in Taxco.
Sharon: That’ll be very interesting.
Penny: Yes, I think so, too. There’s plenty of material for her in that archive, or for anyone who would like to get access and see William Spratling’s design drawings. There are hundreds there. There are also design drawings by Chato Castillo for his mixed metals; there are design drawings by Salvador Peren, Sigi Pineda and others, and, of course, all the other related materials. I’m very excited about it, and I think it’s important. I was afraid this material was going to disappear.
Just a quick anecdote—one day I walked into a store, and this person was selling a water-colored design drawing by Margot. I said, “Oh my God, where did you get that?” and he said, “Oh, there’s a guy in Taxco selling them one at a time. He has a whole book of them,” and I went, “What?!” So, I got on a plane. I went down there and bought the book, because imagine if one drawing was bought by a lady who had that particular design in her collection. She decides to buy that watercolor drawing. She dies; the necklace is there with the little drawing, and people look at the little drawing and go, “I don’t know what this is, but I’m not sure it’s important. I’m going to toss it.” It would have just been gone. The collection of her watercolors and enamel designs would be gone. So, I raced down there and said, “How much do you want?” and he told me and I paid it. Now they’re at Tulane.
Sharon: At Tulane in New Orleans.
Penny: Yes, Tulane is in New Orleans. Knock on wood, the hurricane is coming, but we’re all going to keep our fingers crossed. Anyone who wants to visit can contact the director. She will ask you what you want to look at, and then you can go have a look. It’s in a lovely setting at the big Latin American Library. It’s wonderful.
Sharon: That’s great to know about. I hear Tulane and I think of sports or football.
Penny: Well, I don’t know, I guess. That was not my big thing when I was at Tulane. It has its reputation. I don’t know how much football they’ll be playing.
Sharon: Yeah, that’s true, or at least with people watching them. Penny, thank you so much. We learned so much. It’s so interesting, and I could talk to you for another hour just asking questions.
Penny: This is fun. Thank you so much.
Sharon: Thank you so much for being here. For everybody listening, that’s it for today’s Jewelry Journey. Don’t forget we’ll be posting pictures of Mexican silver along with the podcast. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another jewelry industry professional or expert who can share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.