All that glitters is not gold… sometimes it is silver. William Spratling did not move to Mexico with the intent of becoming a silversmith, but fate eventually led him there, much to the benefit of the small town of Taxco, Guerrero.
Spratling was born in 1900 in Sonyea, New York. He came from an educated family, but his mother died young, and he eventually went to live with other relatives in New York and Alabama. He studied architecture at Auburn, taught there and at the age of 22, became a faculty member at Tulane University in New Orleans. Spatling became immersed in work in architecture, writing and art, becoming a fixture in the artists’ community of Vieux Carré, associated with people such as William Faulkner and Caroline Durieux. His position allowed him to travel in Europe for several summers. but he became interested in traveling in Mexico.
His first opportunity came in 1926, through Frans Blom, who headed the new Middle America Research Department at Tulane. Blom was well-connected in Mexico and gave Spratline introduction letters for a number of important people such as Diego Rivera and Frances Toor. Spratling left for Veracruz with a contract to write articles on colonial Mexican architecture for a magazine, the first of three such summers.
Outgoing and gregarious, he quickly developed a social circle of influential people in Mexico including Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, David Siquiereos, photographer Edward Weston, along with a number of politicians, intellectuals and art dealers.
He had been involved in learning about Mexican handcrafts through his writing and promotion work.
By 1928, Spratling decided to abandon the U.S. for permanent residency in Mexico. His contacts, along with artistic and political interest in the States in the wholesale changes going on in Mexico, offered Spratling writing and art promotion opportunities. In 1929, he negotiated a mural for Rivera in Cuernavaca (sponsored by a wealthy American family) and in turn, Rivera gave Spratling a $2000 dollar commission, with which he bought a modest house in Taxco, Guerrero. Spratling’s work also put him in contact with Mexican handcrafts, which were promoted by Mexico’s artistic class as symbolic of a true Mexican identity.
Spratling’s house purchase became the foundation of a wave of American expats moving to the tiny, impoverished town. From 1929 to 1945, the American invited and entertained people at his home, convincing more than a few to buy or build their own homes there.
However, despite his wide-ranging connections and talents, his financial situation was dicey. In 1930, US ambassador Dwight Morrow made note to Spratling that the town’s economy was based on silver and that he should consider reviving it.
Silver had been mined in the area since the pre Hispanic period. It reached its height in the 18th century under Jose de la Borda, who built the town’s notable Santa Prisca Church. But that silver mining had little benefit to the town and after the silver ran out, things became worse. By the time Spratling had arrived it had fallen into abject poverty. Spratling, like his contemporaries, was looking to create a better Mexico, but his means was a bit more practical than promoting artists’ utopian visions.
Spratling found the idea of reviving silverwork very intriguing. He found one lone old man who still new something about the work that had been done in Taxco to learn what he could. He also made connections with artisans in the Guerrero capital of Iguala, where silver and gold work continue to this day.
The result was the start of a silver workshop in Spratling’s home, hiring some master craftsmen from Iguala and recruiting local young people as apprentices. Design work fell to the drawing abilities of Spratling himself.
This workshop was dubbed “Taller (Workshop) de Las Delicias,” the street on which the house was located. The anniversary of this founding is still noted in Taxco, as the date of Mexico’s National Silver Fair held each November.
At that time, Mexican silverwork had degenerated to copies of European and Mexican colonial designs. Inspired by the work of Rivera and others in reviving an indigenous heritage identity for the country, Spratling began by using images primarily from indigenous sources, which varied from ancient codices, stamps local Nahuas used to decorate their pottery, Aztec seals, etc. The discovery of Tomb 7 in Monte Alban in Oaxaca, yielded gold treasures (very rare as the Spanish did a thorough job of plundering the country), the designs of which made their way into Spratling’s work.
But design work quickly shifted from copies to Spratling’s own interpretations of the old designs, adding contemporary elements and lines. This is what set his work apart from just making curios.
Early work from Las Delicias was relatively crude, starting with half-dome earrings and large, heavy belt buckles. Early techniques were very basic, lacking equipment such as rolling mills, with much of the work done through hand-hammering. Polishing was done with a local leaf with a texture similar to sandpaper. However a number of early elements of the work remained. One was Spratling’s trademark, a joined “WS” (from the brand on his horses) and the making of 980 silver (20 parts copper to 980 parts silver) Sterling is 925, but Spratling preferred the softer color of 980 and that it did not oxidize as quickly.
Initially, the workshop’s sales were purely retail, depending on the stream of visitors now coming to Taxco and Las Delicias. Taxco was becoming fashionable and demands for a number of Mexican crafts was growing, leading Spratling to offer work in tin, leather, wool and wood (especially furniture) from a variety of craftspeople. While other similar businesses were appearing, Las Delicias stood out because buyers could watch pieces being made just before purchase.
Through the 1930s, the workshop grew rapidly, tourism and the US expat community continued to grow. By 1937, Spratling employed about 100 artisans and by 1940, 300. The silverwork expanded to include larger pieces such as silverware, candlesticks, dishes and more. This growth continued into the 1940s, with wholesaling of jewelry starting in 1945, almost entirely to foreign markets. Spratlings main roles continued to be in design (with several new ones each week) and the management of the business. Despite the volume of business it was not making much money. In 1940, Spratling signed a contract with Silco to provide designs for costume jewelry, one of many such collaborations he would do for the rest of his life.
Another problem was competition, and in particular the copying of his designs. He complained that any new design had a shelf life of about a week before they were copied in town. One craftsperson, Serafin Moctezuma, went even as far as to use a “SM” mark… looking much like and upside down “WS.” A number of Spratling’s craftsmen left to form their own workshop, some like those of Hector Aguilar and Antonio Castillo, with Spratling’s blessing with the admonition not to reproduce what they had done for him.
By the mid-1940s, the workshop employed about 400 artisans, but Spratling made a startling move. In 1944, he sold all but 15% of his interest, essentially becoming an employee, sticking to design work and leaving most of the business decisions to others. This would prove to be a disaster for Las Delicias, now renamed Spratling and Artesanos. His importance in the enterprise sharply diminished in within a year had problems with his business partners. Disheartened, he took on employment to work with native peoples of Alaska to try and replicate his success in Taxco. In 1946, Spratling sold the last of his stake in the company which eventually went bankrupt.
Spratling returned to Mexico to live at a ranch he bought on the highway between Taxco and Iguala. He lived off the food the ranch produced as well as various collaorations with Mexican and US enterprises. His role as founder of modern Taxco silver was cemented, with a street there named after him and being named its “favorite son.” But the honors also resulted in scandalous newspaper stories about his personal life and accusation of shipping archeological pieces outside of Mexico. This and failure of the company he founded made Spratling rather reclusive to his ranch. When Warner Bros. came to make a movie about his life, Spratling did not want credit for the Taxco industry.
Spratling died on August 7, 1967 in a car accident while he was on his way to Mexico City. It would be very difficult to overestimate his impact on silverwork, not just in Taxco but in Mexico in general as the indigenous-inspired motifs have since become a staple of Mexican silver. Taxco’s position as one of Guerrero state’s three main tourist attractions (along with Acapulco and Zihuatanejo) traces back to him, the people he brought to Taxco and connecting sales to tourism. Although it may not have ended personally well for this American, his work has had a positive economic effect on just about everyone who works in this tiny town clinging onto a hillside in central Mexico.
Featured image – Ruby Lane (fair use)
(1) unknown, photo in public domain
(2) unknown, (fair use)
(3) Juan Guzman (fair use)
(4) Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CC-by-SA)
(5) Modern Silver Magazine (fair use)
(6) Wendy Morales (CC-by-SA)