I had seen this almost fantastically bright “silver” before in tourist shops, which I had assumed was a kind of plating, like the chrome that used to be very popular on car ornaments not so long ago.
Instead, a visit to Ruth Cortes Rodriguez‘s workshop in San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato gave me an education in a metal alloy called nickel silver (most commonly called “alpaca” in Mexico). It is not a silver at all, but rather a copper alloy with nickel and zinc. The combination changes to metal’s color from the orange hue associated with copper to rustic gray or a very shiny silver, depending on the finishing treatment. Either way, there is no plating to peel over time and with use.
Cortes’s workshop is located Colonia Guadalupe, a neighborhood north of the historic center of this town popular with American expats. Its an unassuming building with no sign, and with the only giveaway to its function being the near-constant hammering and other noises associated with the working of metal.
Unlike most metal workshops, this one was founded and run by a woman. She began her career in metals working with an American silversmith from New Mexico about 25 years ago, for whom she made belt buckels and hat trim in silver for the U.S. market. This experience not only taught her metal working, but also how to sell to foreign customers.
She decided to expand both her client base and the metals she worked in. San Miguel Allende is noted for the working of tin, which she did for a while, but has since moved almost exclusively to the working of nickel silver. The reason for the change was that it has a appearance similar to silver, but is nowhere near as costly.
The workshop is large, with two level and looks everything like the metal shop it is, drab lighting, cut metal everywhere, various work tables and some power tools, such as the machine use to polish finished products to a high gloss. It is a property left to her by her father.
There is no store per se, but in the office, there is a large stash of finished pieces that functions as a small warehouse of the most common products the workshop sells. The two most popular items are small to medium-sized jewelry/knick-knack boxes and picture frames, but the stock also includes decorative wall hangings, belt buckles, jewelry, napking holders, bookends and more. By far, the preferred finish is bright and mirror-like.
This stock method is fairly unusual for Mexican artisans, who generally make to order or to a specific event. But since most of Cortes’s clients are retail outlets in the United States, she has adapted to the need to be able to fill orders quickly. The stock also allows her to make spot sales to clients who visit the workshop. Most of her US clients are in Washington, DC, San Francisco, Santa Fe, NM and Texas. These clients visit once or twice a year, buying stock items and leaving orders to fill over the coming months.
The workshops does make to order and in fact has a number of client with whom she has developed exclusive designs. These are not displayed with the general stock nor clients.
Cortes does sell regularly at some handcraft fairs, most notably the Feria Maestros del Arte (where she will appear in November) and ENART in Tlaquepaque. In the past she used to attend many other smaller ones in the Guanajuato areas, but as the business has matured, the need for these has become less.
While her children are part of the business, she still supervises all design and production, include the work of ten employees.
The workshop is located on Alfonso Esparza Oteo Street, but the entrance to the shop proper is on H. Colegio Militar.