Talavera pottery is one of Mexico’s finest and most expensive ceramics, endemic to the state of Puebla. It is derived from a style of Spanish pottery (hence the name) and its value is attributed to a rigourous selection of clays and handcrafted processes from the 16th century.
However, buying authentic Talavera is not easy. The name is used on all kinds of colonial-style pottery, using all kinds of materials and processes.
La Trinidad is one of the oldest Talavera workshops which still exist in the city of Puebla. Founded in 1839, it is still housed in a colonial-era building that was originally the main house of the family’s hacienda, back when the area was outside the city of Puebla. Today, it is on the very edge of the city center.
The family began making the pottery primarily for domestic use, with some used as gifts. These were simple, just black lines over a creamy background. Great aunts began to develop many of the family’s designs based on their embroidery work and other handcrafts. The Talavera sold today, with all the colors were originally made only for wealty customers and/or for special pieces, like wedding china. Just over a century later, pottery making became the family’s main economic activity. The family has continuously made pottery, and today the head of the workshop is Alejandra Nuñez Ladrón de Guevara.
Maestra Alejandra is very critical of the Talavera markets as it exists today in Puebla. Fakes abound, especially in markets that cater to tourists. One dead giveaway is a bright white background, something that is not possible to achieve using the materials and techniques of the 16th century. Another are holes in the back of plates, often used to dip the piece into glaze, but also attractive to tourists as it allows for easy hanging on a wall. The maestra says one way NOT to determine if a piece is real is to feel for ridges created by the painted-on design. It is not true that the painting cannot keep a completely smooth surface, as many of her pieces can attest, although an occasional uneveness can be sometimes detected. The belief has prompted many producers to add feldspar to the paints used for designs to bulk it up.
To try to distinguish genuine producers from imitators, the state of Puebla and the federal government have a means of registering authentic producers, called denominación de orígen. However, the maestra has expressed her doubts about this as well. Her workshop does have the certificate, but claims that too many workshops have pressured their way to the certification, often with significant changes to how their pottery is made. It is true that there are some which experiment with very different designs and sometimes colors… for example the Uriarte workshop. For this reason, while La Trinidad is authorized to embed produt authenticity chips in their pieces, they so far have refused to do so. Instead, they rely on the company signature/logo.
Maestra Alejandra claims that La Trinidad is the only workshop that is 100% faithful to original Talavera pottery, both in materials and technique. No commercially prepared products are used, neither in the clays or glazes. She is quite particular about the glazes, insisting that all are made in the workshop in small batches from scratch using metals like copper she often buys in junk yards. She states that other workshops use “industrial” glazes, which are cheaper and faster to use. Her glazes are made in site and are very time-consuming, but she states they give a far richer color. Another criticism is that many workshops now produce their pottery in an assembly line fashion, with workers specializing in one or a few tasks.
There is a division between potters and painters, the former role generally filled by men and the latter by women. Her potters are able to produce all the items that the workshop produces, but most important are the painters. In this, maestra Alejandra insists that painters create the decorative painting from start-to-finish, rather than having a line of painters who only work on one aspect of the decoration. She believes that in this way, the artisan is vested in the piece, rather than simply repeating a task over and over.
While La Trinidad’s designs may not be exactly 16th century, they have not changed since the family established them a couple of generations ago, and the maestra is more interested in preserving tradition than innovation. Images of pottery in the family from 50 or more years ago can be placed among the items in the showroom with nothing to indicate age.
Maestra Alejandra is secretive about processes, especially paint-making and laments that many of the family’s designs have been copied by other workshops. This is probably unavoidable as La Trinidad draws from the same pool of workers/craftspeople that other workshops do…n economic necessity because of the ups-and-downs of production. Depending on business, she may have from three to 15 workers at a time. When she does not have work, they go onto others, bringing their knowledge with them.
La Trinidad’s dedication to tradition has earned them some recognition in Mexico, with pieces part of collections such as that of the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City and the Santa Rosa Cultural Center in Puebla. However, maestra Alejandra states that La Trinidad’s work is far more appreciate by foreigners. The workshop has exhibited in and sold in venues such as the Feria Maestros de Arte in the expat community of Chapala, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, and various other museums in the United States. The work has also appeared in foreign publications such as National Geographic.
All photos by the author except the featured photo and others credited to La Trinidad, all used with permission.