Seashell art in a high interior valley

Seashell handcrafts, often kitchy, are a staple of visiting popular beach destinations in Mexico. But a decidedly non-kitch use of them is found in the small indigenous communty of El Nith in the state of Hidalgo a few hours north of Mexico City.

Parish of El Nith, Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo

El Nith is not much more than a few blocks surrounding a church on a small road that extends east of the nearby large town of Ixmiquilpan. This area has a strong Otomi indigenous heritage. The church of former Archangel Michael monastery is noted for fragments of murals painted in the very early colonial period, most depicting indigenous images. The language is still commonly used, heard on the streets and markets, and more than a few people speak Spanish and a second language.

Image of indigenous warrior in the Archangel Michael Church in Ixmiquipan.
Carefully laying shell pieces on a round covered box at the Jaguey worshop in El Nith

The crafting of inlaid wood has its origins here in the making of guitars, most likly in the 19th entury, but originally the inlay was bone, especially those from sheep, both for frets and for decorative elements. Shells are not found anywhere in the Mezquital Valley, high up on Mexico’s Central Plateau. They are brought to the region from Baja California, generally in bulk to Mexico City. According to master craftsman Mario Gerardo Jaguey, a leader among the 10 or so families dedicated to this craft in El Nith, shell was introduced when craftsmen from this town discovered the material at the Sonora Market in Mexico City. Nacre or mother of pearl, was first used but now the most commonly used shell is haliotis or abalone shell, as it holds up better when cut. However, most artisan still refer to the shell as “nácar,” the Spanish word for mother of pearl.

Polished shell at the Arte Joya store on the main road through El Nith

Decorative motifs are principally birds and foliage, the most traditional of which are inspired by those native to the surrounding semi-arid Mezquital Valley. The most common bird by far is the dove, but other birds such as the peacock can also appear.  The figures are highly simplified as a consequence of working the material, but the main attraction is how it shimmers, with many tiny pieces of shell laid against a lacquered background, most often black to provide the most contrast.

Back of hand mirror with dove and foliage by Celerino Vazquez of El Nith

The craft has been the subject of various books and academic articles as well as documentaries. But it is relatively unknown outside of its region and when found in other parts of Mexico, few have any idea of where it is from. The main reason for this the the lack of promotion. The Mezquital Valley is extremely poor and efforts to promote tourism to this culturally-rich area are very, very recent. There have been some efforts to get Ixmiquilpan listed as one of Mexico’s “Magic Towns,” but these efforts have not yet been successful

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All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter

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