On a recent visit to the pottery town of Dolores Hidalgo, we inquired at the local tourist office for a recommendation of a producer to visit. Without hesitation, the answer was Talavera Vazquez, only a few blocks from the main plaza on the corner of Puebla and Tamaulipas streets.
Despite the fact that the name “Talavera” refers only to majolica pottery produced in Puebla (according to Mexico’s demoninación de origen law), neither the Vazquez family or the rest of the town accepts that they cannot call their work or their businesses by that name.
The story of how the family came to prominence in this field started in the very early 20th century with Felipe Vazquez, whose parents moved to Dolores Hidalgo from Puebla. Felipe began during the Mexican Revolution by walking the streets of the towns of Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende selling the family’s pottery. The business grew enough that he was able to sell as far away as Guadalajara and taught ceramics classes in San Miguel for 30 years. His work became a fixture in San Miguel, eventually bringing it to the attention of U.S. expats who began to arrive to study there after World War II. Today, the workshop is run by 4th generation Roberto Vazquez but the workshop’s current status in the market is due to the work done by his parents who ran it from 1986 to 1996. Prior to the 1980s, the bulk of the ceramic produced was tile. His parents anticipated a change to the making of dishes and other individual pieces, in part due to San Miguel’s growth as a retirement haven for foreigners. This not only resulted in higher local sales, but also articles about the business in English language publications with several speciality stores in the US taking interest in importing their wares by the end of the decade. Foreign markets have been a profitable mainstay of the business ever since.
For better or worse, the majolica “talavera” of Dolores Hidalgo is not as constrained by tradition as are the wares of Puebla in styles, colors or methods. However, most pieces do keep the colonial feel to them. This is very evident in the inventory available for sale at the workshop itself, open to the public. Items include plates bowls, tiles, and large jars called tibors, but also include less traditional items such as coffee mugs, multicolored lizard figures to hang on walls, modern bathroom sinks and small fountains.
The clay used is still mined from areas around Dolores Hidalgo. Vazquez principally uses three kinds; red, black and white, with two or all three mixed depending on what is being made. The most traditional method of forming pieces is by pottery wheel, but the market for Dolores wares has made this impossible. This majolica does not command the prices of that of Puebla, so Vazquez and competitors form the majority of their pieces using molds, which allows for faster creation of multiple items, which most orders require. It also has the benefit of making pieces less prone to defects. Only a few pieces are made by hand at all, which include oval platters and box-like containers.
Glazes and pigments are commercial, but colors are created by the workshop. The most traditional and most popular color scheme remains blue-on-white, but the Vazquez workshop also experiments with various shades of green, black, orange and brown, combining them in various ways.
The molding and initial firing of pieces is done in another location, but the glazing, decoration and final firing is done in the main family workshop. This processes begin by throughly cleaning the piece of all dust before dipping it into a glaze that will become the white or off-white background of the piece.
The piece is set to dry for about 2 hours before it is ready to have the design traced onto it. This is the hardest and perhaps most important job of the workshop as most of the value of the piece depends on the design. All designs are penciled on by hand, no stencils, and no two are exactly alike. While almost all of the designs are based on tradition, the exact interpretations have been developed by the workshop to create its own style. There are some pieces with more modern designs, but these are almost always the result of special orders.
The colors are applied within the various lines, almost always by women. Before, firing the colors are much paler. After the color(s) is/are applied and dried, the piece is ready for final firing between 1,100 and 1,200 C for 6-8 hours. Then the piece is inspected for defects such as cracks or bubbles in the glaze.
Roberto Vazquez is proud that mouth-to-mouth is still their best advertising, and the business has never had to pay for its fairly regular appearances in magazines and other publications.
The business is sophisticated, with its own Internet site, and the ability to ship anywhere in Mexico and the world. As mentioned earlier, the foreign market is the basis of the business, with about 75% of production going to the United States, and between 10-15% more to other foreign countries such as Japan, Germany, France, as well as South America and Asia. Most domestic shipping is to tourist centers. Roberto states that almost all the dishes and other ceramics in San Miguel hotels and restaurants are from them, and they even have clients in the city of Puebla. Despite the store, very little of their wares are sold in Dolores Hidalgo proper. The first reason is that they can get much better prices outside of Mexico. The second is that most of what can be found in Dolores Hidalgo proper is of lesser quality and much cheaper. Roberto claims that much of the pottery sold in the town, even if in traditional style, is fake… made in other parts of Mexico such as Tonalá, Jalisco.
Despite this, the showroom remains important because clients still come to them to get a feel for the pieces, which is not generally possible on the Internet, as well as for some quick purchases.
The major problem that the workshop has is with production. Despite the adoption of some mass-production techniques, most of the work is still done by hand, no machines or conveyor belts to be found. The low prices of Dolores Hidalgo wares have attracted the attention of large chain stores in the U.S. such as Target, but these buyers seek to purchase lots by the thousands, generally equal copies and for very low per-unit prices. Despite being the largest and best-placed producer in Dolores Hidalgo, Roberto has had to turn down such work, has he does not have the capacity or the staff to produce such quantity on deadlines set by such buyers. Large orders do not mean lower per-unit prices for workshops like Vazquez either (mostly due to labor costs), so profit margins on such large orders may not be worth the work. Vazquez has a well-established base of small and medium-sized businesses to work with, giving him the luxury of refusing such orders.
Today, Giovanni Vazquez, Roberto’s son, is the fifth generation to work in the business, but it is not clear if he or any of siblings will be taking over in the future. Roberto was the only one of all his 6 siblings to be interested in the work, stating that part of the reason was that he married and started his family young, without finishing high school. He has strongly encouraged his children to get university educations and to live/study abroad if at all possible. One works for Mercedes Benz in Germany and another will be spending a semester abroad in Europe.
The workshop’s website is at http://vazquezpottery.com/ but I have had difficulty accessin it due to is heavy use of Flash. The Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100007400984647