Friday, August 12, 2016

The winged horse of inspiration ~ Fred Davis, the Byzantines and a fabulous Mexican silver and amethyst Bracelet

Considered one of the early forces behind Mexico's 20th c. Silver Renaissance though based in Mexico City and not Taxco, Fred Davis was a Chicago-ite who found himself south of the border as early as 1910. An avid collector of folk art and pre-Colombian antiques - I believe I read somewhere that he even organized archeological excavations himself since it was not illegal to do so at the time in Mexico - he is widely recognized as a major proponent of the country's arts and crafts and staunch supporter of Mexico's contemporary artists as well.

Fred Davis silver and black onyx "mask" ring
Quite often inspired by the country's rich historical heritage and robust folk tradition, Davis's jewelry can look distinctly "archeological", its Maya and Aztec motifs at times pared down to absolute minimalist lines or more in line with Spanish Colonial design.

F. Davis silver and turquoise necklace and bracelet set

And then came this bracelet!

monumental Fred Davis silver and amethyst hinged bracelet

I have to admit that I was not prepared for the proportions of the piece! As somebody who spent the last several years buying and selling and studying vintage Mexican silver jewelry, I considered myself used to the fact that those old maestros loved to create necklaces and bracelets and earrings that are bold and in-your-face and simply beyond the realm of "normal" expectations. But the bracelet at hand was literally monumental and my stature, limited at 5' 4" I am afraid, could never support such a piece.

Yet what really intrigued me was the design itself. I had never seen it before - not by Davis, not by anybody else. What was the source that inspired it? Was there anything in my books that even resembled this mass of perfectly patina-ed silver and the luscious amethyst that complemented it?

No matter how hard I tried, I only found one photo in Morrill and Berk's, Mexican Silver, showing a pair of pins and a set of earrings that looked similar. So I resigned myself to my meager findings and life went on. Until, quite some time later, while reading Claire Phillips's, Jewelry From Antiquity to the Present, I turned a page and... there it was, in black and white, the piece that probably inspired my stunning Fred Davis bracelet.

Byzantine gold bracelets with pearls, amethyst, glass and sapphires,
500-700 CE

Housed in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York - I just love that place! - there is a pair of Byzantine gold, pearl and precious stones bracelets that were discovered in Upper Egypt yet believed to have been made in Constantinople. The pair dates in the 500-700 period and it is just breath-taking in its craftsmanship, combination of materials and that sense of history it carries within it.

I might be asking you to take a leap of faith here but the minute I "discovered" the Byzantine pieces, I felt convinced that they must have been the inspiration for Davis's bracelet. Materials and proportions, of course, differ (Davis did exaggerate on size a little bit!) but the design elements are similar and the overall appearance of our Mexican example undoubtedly points in the direction of the Met - to my eyes at least. It's a tantalizing hypothesis, don't you think?

hallmarks on Fred Davis amethyst bracelet

Friday, July 22, 2016

The thrill of experimentation ~ Two Los Castillo copper over sterling silver bracelets

It is true that among collectors, be they Mexican jewelry afficionados or lovers of American antiques, "transitional" or "experimental" pieces, in other words items that leave the well-trodden path of design and execution to savor the thrill of uncharted waters, are either totally shunned despite their artistic merits or frantically sought after, the ranks of the latter admittedly much thinner than the former.

I think I belong in the second group and when I bumped into this Los Castillo cuff quite some time ago, I was elated!

 Yes, I was familiar with the "metales casados" or mixed metals technique, the marrying of sterling silver with copper and brass, within the field of Mexican silversmithing yet here I was holding in my very hands a fabulous bracelet that was wrought in solid sterling silver and then had its face... covered in copper. It's usually the other way around, right?

I had to run to my books and search again - could I find another listed example? And low and behold, there it was, on page 125 of Penny Morril's latest work, her book on Margot de Taxco's enamels! A gorgeous copper over sterling silver demi comprised of necklace and bracelet by Margot in a classic "pre-Colombian" design...

Penny Morrill, Margot Van Voorhies, the Art of Mexican Enamelwork, p. 125

Should we assume that the two talleres shared in a rather bold experiment yet ended up not producing many similar pieces? If I were to suggest a reason for their scarcity, I would say that the idea of covering good old sterling in what is generally perceived as a "lesser" metal probably failed to strike a cord with prospective customers. It was a bold move; one bound to be appreciated by the few imaginative enough to plunge into that deep Taxco sea of experimentation.

Yet I did find a second example in the real world - a fantastic Los Castillo clamper available on Etsy by TexomaVintage (thank you, Jane, for kindly sharing the photos!).

Los Castillo copper over sterling silver clamper bracelet


Both pieces have sold since I started thinking of this entry - which shows that there is an audience out there for jewelry that breaks the mold of the ordinary and the expected to venture into the thrilling realm which defying the canon creates. So let me wrap this up with a few more details of this post's protagonists...

First the Los Castillo cuff bracelet, des. no 909:

Los Castillo copper over sterling silver Cuff Bracelet
Another view of the cuff
Los Castillo des. no 909 hallmarks



For all the specifics and more photos, you can visit the original listing on my site at

Last but not least, the clamper bracelet from Texoma Vintage on Etsy:

Los Castillo des. no 250 clamper
Hallmarks on the Los Castillo copper over silver clamper

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

An unusual Antonio Pineda creation or how our teachers influence our early works

When I was growing up, I always thought I would become a writer - I would definitely write something at some point in my life. That's what I promised myself. Yet here I am, decades later, and though I have written this and that over the years, some academic, some prose, an attempt at poetry (if you forgive me the use of the term, please!), it seems that I have yet to fulfill that promise.

I have not been diligent enough - not even with this blog that I started back in 2011- and my excuse is, of course, that life somehow always got in the middle and I just didn't have enough time. You know the feeling, I am sure. So I am not promising anything now - I am just coming back to write about early beginnings and Mexican silver, the influence of inspiring teachers and Antonio Pineda's exquisite jewelry.

early Antonio Pineda 980 silver brooch

And it is this wonderful repousse brooch that instigated it all! Just look at it. If you had to guess, to which Taxco maestro would you ascribe it?

pre-Colombian repousse motifs

To the trained eye of the collector, the motifs point to the "archeaological" period of Taxco design, an era definitely dominated by the genius of William Spratling. The repoussage is bold and very nicely worked and most of the times, this indicates an early date. And the texturing on the stylized feather part of the brooch, all hand-done of course, doesn't it remind you of old Mexico City pieces and Matilde Poulat's early work?

Matl-style textured repoussage

Now, please, look at the hallmarks! Wrought out of high purity, 980 silver, this is an Antonio Pineda creation. And it does date in the beginning of his career, when the maestro whose name came to denote Mexican modernist jewelry was still under the influence of his teacher, Valentin Vidaurreta. 

Antonio Pineda early hallmarks (1941-1948)

This is one of the reasons for which years ago I fell in love with Mexican jewelry. No matter how long you hunt for it, no matter how many pieces you have handled and bought and sold and researched, chances are there will always be that one example just around the corner, that will make your heart jump out of your chest...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Plateria La Azteca, John Wayne's Red River Belt Buckle and the Silversmithing of the Martinez family: Part Two

A week or so ago, I embarked on a "journey" to the town of Nogales in the state of Sonora, Mexico to trace the origins of a gorgeous vintage Mexican silver necklace I acquired bearing the unkown signature of La Azteca. My virtual trip was definitely not the result of a revelation - it was prompted by a polite and very informative message I received from a gentleman who responded to my frustration about the lack of information on the history of Plateria La Azteca by telling me that it was actually his family who owned and operated it from the 1940s until the mid-1960s.

Just across the border from its US counterpart in Arizona, Nogales, Sonora was a classic frontier town with its share of bootlegging, freewheeling and even combat during the Mexican Revolution. In the 1940s, with several Western movies shot in the surrounding area, it became the playground for famous actors who would cross over to visit La Caverna, its renowned club-restaurant, housed in a man-made cave-prison ostensibly dug out by prisoners themselves. In its long life (the place finally burned down in 1983 never to reopen) boasted the patronage of personalities as disparate as Dillinger and John Wayne.

Newspaper feature on Elias Martinez
Very close to La Caverna (possibly even next to it), the Martinez family had opened their jewelry shop, La Azteca. Brothers Jose and Elias Martinez were active jewelry makers at the time and at least Elias continued in the same business after the two moved to the States, presumably in the mid- to later 1960s. Elias passed away in Scottsdale, AZ in 2005 but I was offered an old newspaper clipping his brother kept which featured the younger Martinez's silver- and gold-smithing career in the States.

Crown setting ring by La Azteca
According to Jose Martinez's son, the store's proximity to the La Caverna restaurant and the number of US films being shot in the area secured a rather famous clientele for La Azteca, among them none other than the legendary John Wayne. It is actually possible that the famous belt buckle that John Wayne wore in "Red River" was made by the Martinez family at La Azteca.

I hope you are at least as thrilled as I am with my discoveries so please come back in a few day for the third and last installment of this entry with more specifics about the "Red River" buckles and "La Azteca"...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Plateria La Azteca, John Wayne's Red River Belt Buckle and the silversmithing of the Martinez family: Part One

Anybody who loves vintage Mexican silver jewelry and is interested in the context within which those handmade treasures were created is painfully aware of the dearth of information on the circumstances of most maestros responsible for Mexico's 20th c. Silver Renaissance. There are, of course, some excellent works on several of the most famous makers yet we have barely (if at all) even scratched the surface where the majority of the silversmiths responsible for it is concerned.

We are all trying to compose a picture of those amazing decades following the 1920s by putting together little bits and pieces of information gleaned from various sources - often ones that are not even relevant to the history of jewelry making per se.

In our quest the web has definitely proven an invaluable "deus ex machina" - and just a month or so ago, I was privileged enough to learn about Plateria La Azteca, a little known taller in Nogales, Texas; this unexpected revelation made me want to scream with enthusiasm!

It all started with a gorgeous necklace I acquired bearing that signature - it's one of those pieces that can drive you crazy because its quality is such that you feel there should be something in the books about the maker yet ... it's only silence you encounter.

Based on the way the necklace was hallmarked, I knew it was made in the 1940s and hypothesized it had a Mexico City provenance. So I wrote it up and put out there for sale. Later, going through my inventory, I found a zodiac pin with turquoise chip inlay also made by La Azteca - and some further research on Ebay revealed a couple of similar examples. The pins were well-made for sure but nothing like the necklace.

And then, the email came - from a gentleman living in the US who told me it was his father and his uncle who, in the 1940s, owned and operated Plateria La Azteca in ... Nogales, Texas! Who had ever heard of Nogales within the context of vintage Mexican silver jewelry?

Well, the story keeps getting more interesting - so please come back in a couple of days for the second installment!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hearts of Stone for ... Valentine's

It's about Valentine's Day and most of us get into that funny, blissful-as-a-puppy mode again!
And even if our budgets have probably not recovered from the holidays yet, the search for the absolutely perfect gift for our precious "others" is back on.
Well, don't go too far as I have some good suggestions - or so I believe at least...

There is a whole genre within vintage Mexican silver jewelry that can work perfectly for you this year - and, hopefully, also ever after!
Made primarily in the pre-1948 period, these silver and carved stone heart pieces come in all forms and in several colors as well. Though I have never seen one with amethyst - quite surprisingly if you think of the stone's popularity with Mexican silversmiths and designers - "heart" bracelets, brooches, pins and earrings feature agates in various colors and, of course, the quintessential "Mexican jade".

Curvaceous, set in repousse or plain frames, at times having dramatic arrows going through them, the stone hearts express in the best possible way the elation and apprehension, the joy and pain that love can cause.

And though in the years I have been dealing and learning about Mexican silver jewelry I have had the opportunity to own several examples, I have never seen a piece bearing a maker's signature - they all bear the generic "SILVER" or "STERLING" and "MEXICO" hallmark.

Most importantly? I have also never ever found a necklace in this design - could this be my lucky year?


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The magic of JOSE FEDERICO's Enamels

Jose Federico Cat pin
Jose Federico Siesta Man pin

I am finally back after months and months of promising myself that tomorrow would be the day to start a new post. I guess later is better than never but you would have to be the judge of this...

And since Spring seems to be with us already this year, I thought I'd write about enamel jewelry because I always found them perfect for the sunny days of spring and summer...

Jose Federico Floral Wreath pin

I have an old fascination with enameled jewelry - there is something about the transparent lucidity of guilloche that reminds me of enchanted waters and fragile aquatic Nymphs while the saturated opaqueness of champleve takes my breath away with its strong, almost primordial presence.

When I got to know Mexican jewelry, circumstances were already mature for a love affair with Margot's exquisite enamels - I don't need to talk about her here; who doesn't know Margot or the latest book about her enamel work by Penny Morrill (if you don't, just look up Penny Morrill, Margot Van Voorhies, The Art of Mexican Enamelwork).

I do feel the need, however, to feature some of the pieces by Jose Federico, an artist whose enamelwork, in my humble opinion, is the closest thing to the Great Lady's jewelry. I have never seen better matching colors and higher quality in the work of any of Margot's contemporaries or the ones that still today produce her designs using the old molds that she had to give up as a result of her bankruptcy in the early 1970s.

Rare Jose Federico Necklace in Purple Enamel

Jose Federico Ballerina 

Interestingly enough Jose Federico is not mentioned - at least to my knowledge - in any of the classic reference books on vintage Mexican silver jewelry with one exception; the work of Leslie Pina (Mexican Silver Jewelry Details, see p. 8-9). Yet his work is absolutely gorgeous!

Jose Federico Torero pin detail

Over the years I have had several of his pieces - mostly brooches - all of them in emulation of classic Margot designs. Very recently I sold a rare necklace signed by him in a difficult to find color as well. And even though for the longest time I thought that he stopped producing before 1980, my theory was abruptly demolished when last year, I found a pin with his initials side by side a post-1980 registration code. 
post-1980 Jose Federico
Campesina pin

Federico Jimenez Silver and Onyx Bracelet

JF signature on the Campesina

And then I was told that "JF", whom I knew as Jose Federico, the Mexican silver enamelist following into Margot de Taxco's footsteps, was also known as Federico Jimenez. Using the same signature, Jimenez who was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, lives in the American Southwest and creates jewelry combining his Mexican heritage with Native American influences.

Unlike the delicate, small in scale pieces of his enamelwork, these later creations are monumental and breath-taking.

"JF" signature on the Jimenez bracelet
I had my doubts about this identification but came very close to believing it might be true (actually in an earlier version of this posting I wrote so) until a customer of mine, who bought the Jimenez armband, emailed me to tell me that she had the artist inscribe one of his pieces that she already owned at a show.

The inscription read:
"As the Stars are to the Night, So are Jewels to the Woman".

That inscription made me believe that my Jose Federico and Federico Jimenez had to be the same person. Why else would a silversmith and designer of Native American inspired jewelry use Margot de Taxco's famous motto unless there was a very close connection between them?
I have to say that I was happy for a little while thinking that a discovery had been made - until a couple of people kindly wrote to inform me that they knew Jimenez and that the two "JF"s are not the same person (you can read their comments on this post for more)...

Classic Jose Federico signature
with Eagle 3 assay mark
The iconic Man and Burro pin