Black glass of the gods

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Monkey drinking vessel from the Museum of Antropology in Mexico City (credit: Dennis Jarvis)

If you have studied anything about Mesoamerican cultures, you probably know what obsidian is. Simply put, it is volcanic glass formed at the end of an eruption when lava cools suddenly. Most finished pieces made of the substance are an opaque and shiny black, but its chemical composition, purity and how it is handled can produce different colors and finishes. Obsidian can appear in dark brown, gold, violet, certain tones of blue, red and some can even been rainbow-colored, white or translucent. In Mexico, one area is noted for producting a green obsidian.

Obsidian has a long history in Mexico and was instrumental in the development a various civilizations here. It main value stemmed from its ability to be flaked into extremely sharp points and blades. These points and blades were used to make weapons of war, such as daggers and a kind of war club called a macuahuitl – wood impregnated with blades of obsidian. Daggers and knives were also used in ritual sacrifices and the mundane task of preparing food.

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Mayan spearheads from Palenque at  the Museum of the Americas in Madrid (credit:Simon Burchell)

In the Mesoamerican period, there were two main sources of obsidian. By far the most important was the region north of Mexico City. Control and trade of obsidian was the economic basis of the Teotihuacan civilization, which worked two sites, One was smaller located what is now Otumba, State of Mexico. The most important site, the Sierra de Navajas, is near the city of Pachuca, Hidalgo, and noted for green obsidian.

Teotihuacan’s trade in obsidian extended as far as Maya territory and made the city wealthy. It was not only important for making cutting implements, but was also used to for jewelry and religious objects, many of which have been found in the graves of rulers and warriors.

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Obsidian mirror embedded in the atrium cross in San José parish church in Cd. Hidalgo, Michoacan. it was a symbol of the god Tezcatlipoca

Another area that was important as a source of obsidian is Teuchitlan, in the modern state of Jalisco. Through knowledge of this obsidian’s particular properties, it is known that this obsidian was traded to what are now Sinaloa, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Colima and Michoacan.

With the introduction of steel and other metals, the use of obsidian fell, as it could not compare in durability. Working the material did not resurge here until about 60 or so years ago, prompted by the opening and popularity of the Teotihuacan archeological site. By far, most obsidian work is done in two of the adjoining municipalities, San Juan Teotihuacan and San Martin de las Piramides. There are almost 1,000 artisans in this valley and about a third work in obsidian. Although San Marcos, Jalisco held an obsidian workshop a few years ago, its working has not resurged in western Mexico.

First and second place pieces at the 2019 Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan. L: by Humberto Hernandez Nieto and R: by Zenaido Joel Ortega Moreno

Interestingly, the most important source of obsidian in the Mesoamerican period continues to be the most important source today. The Sierra de las Navajas (Mountains of the Knives) is still heavily mined and its importance is such that this mountain chain appears on the state seal of Hidalgo. Nearly everyone in the nearby towns such as El Nopalillo work in mining, producing 20 tons of obsidian each month. However, 3/4 of this is exported raw, mostly to China. The remaining quarter supplies artisans in Hidalgo and Teotihuacan.

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Mayan mask by Joel Rufino Oliva Olvera using golden obsidian at the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan

In Teotihuacan and other ancient cultures, obsidian was considered magical and sacred. It is still considered to have esoteric qualities, with different energies ascribed to the different variants of color. This has made obsidian popular with spas and new age healing centers, creating a market for hand-sized rounded stones for use in massages. However, the vast majority of the obsidian is destined for the souvenir market in the area around Teotihuacan. While this tourism has created a market where none existed before, obsidian is made into cheap trinkets, mostly imitations of pre-Hispanic artifiacts, animal figures and mini-pyramids. It can even include ashtrays. All these tend to be small, mere centimeters in width or height, with the execption of masks, which are of other materials tiled over in obsidian. In many pieces, the obsidian is paired with other stones and mother-of-pearl, making the objects look even more kitsch. However, the great demand has prompted many in the area to change their occupations as making these trinkets pays better than most other manual labor in the area.

L: Untitled sculpture by Silvia Flores Perez and R: “El Sacrificio” by Manuel Sarabia at the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan

The tourist means that obsidian work is spreading, primarily northward back toward the main source of obsidian in Hidalgo state. The first to work it in El Nopalillo was Juan Castlan Mata, who began his workshop 1987 after learning the craft in Teotihuacan. He has since gone on to teach others in Nopalillo, and neighboring Santa Monica and Epazoyucan. Today, about half of El Nopalillo makes finished products of obsidian. In addition, the Otomi in El Pañhe, Hidalgo have begun to work with red and black obsidian, taking advantage of visitors to the local El Pañhu archeological site and 16th century monastery.

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-From K’imā with design by David Mendez Sanchez

Obsidian is not an inexpensive material, difficult to mine and handle. Almost always motorized tools are used, with fingers milimeters from spinning saw blades and polishers. Its strong association with souvenirs and the low prices tourist pay has devalued the material. Added to this is the fact that the modern working of the material only goes back a little more than half-a-century with families having no more experience than two or three generations.  New workshops keep appearing, which also impedes the development of finer crafts that take advantage of the stone’s qualities. For this reason, obsidian handcrafts have not become popular in Mexico in general nor with collectors. The dependence on the souvenir market also means that the craft is vulnerable to imitations. A number of aristans in Teotihuacan have complained to authorities about the existence and sale of fake obsidian objects, made with black commerical glass, which they say come from China. It is difficult to distingush between real obsidian and colored glass, but one way to tell is to see that the pieces for sale are too perfectly made and identical. The most common false pieces are bracelets which sell for only 30 pesos, where the real obsidian ones sell for between 50 and 70. Other pieces commonly faked are small pyramids. Artisans state that about 15% of the pieces sold at the archeological site are fake.

Using ancient knapping technique

Using modern tools

Fortunately, there have been efforts to raise the cultural, artistic and economic status of obsidian. These include a registration of the origin of Mexican obsidian and recognition of the craft by federal authorities. Both Teotihuacan and El Nopalillo have begun annual Obsidian Fairs to promote their products, fine piees from the towns of Tecozaulta and Epazoyuan were exhibited in New York in 2018.

More importantly, there have been artisans and others willing to experiment with obsidian to create innovative and finer pieces. Although the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan is still disappointing as to the quality of the general vendors (and most venders were NOT of obsidian), the pieces entered for the annual contest show promise. Daniel Juarez of Artesanias Ra Xedí in Hidalgo has gone from pre-Hispanic imitations to those of minimalist design, focusing on the beauty of the material. David Mendez Sanchez, a UNAM design student, created a company k’imā’ which works to create fine products made with obsidian. The idea is to create products that are both innovative but also reflect Mexico’s identity. One innovation is the creation of pieces of obsidian paired with stainless steel. Mendez Sanchez principally works with design and with a number of artisans in the State of Mexico and Hidalgo to produce the finished pieces.  Instagram (@kimadesign). Students from the industrial design program at the Tec de Monterrey in Queretaro have also worked on projects related to obsidian. The project was prompted by the experience that one student had in Cancun, noticing that obsidian artisan could not sell their wares there. They began with tableware such as napkin holders and bowls as part of the school’s annual event dedicated to innovation.

Perhaps the most interesting use of obsidian and the skills of obisidian artisans was the Vochos (Beetles) de Obsidiana de Ecatepec, two old Volkswagon Beetles which have been tiled over in more than 50,000 obisidan pieces and semi-precious stones.  The two vehicles have been named Teotihuacano and Maya and are the brainchild of Hector Garnelo, from Ecatepec just outside of Mexico City. His initial goals with the cars were to get into the Guiness Book of World Records and to show that the talent of local obsidian craftspeople.  The cars are not simply covered black, but they have also pre Hispanic designs on them including Quetzalcoatl, the Sun and Moon Pyramids of Teotihuacan and a funeral mask. The work was done by six master craftsmen and each took about 3 years to do.  Teotihuacano was exhibited in Germany in 2017, on display at the main Volkswagon plant in Wolfsburg and then in Berlin. More tours for the cars are planned in Mexico and the United States.

Featured image: Plate and pestle by Victor Lopez Pelcastre of Nopalillo, Hidalgo for the “Hidalgo, Rituales, Usos y Creaciones” exhibit at the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City

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Obsidian “disco” ball at the at the ARTESANO 3.0 event at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
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