Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Incredible Casa Maya

King Pacal of Palenque (603-683 CE)
What can be more vexing to a trained historian looking for information on a subject than the dearth of relevant literature? Almost nothing - believe me when I tell you! And unfortunately, this is the case with vintage Mexican jewelry. Despite the existence of a handful of good works on Taxco's Silver Renaissance, the most recent among them being Penny Morrill's book on Margot de Taxco's enamel designs, and several interviews with Taxco maestros and magazine articles scattered here and there, there is so much that we still don't know about the majority of those involved in it, both "big names" and "less celebrated" silversmiths. One could easily say that we have barely scratched the surface...

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that there is a whole new publication on - can you even guess? - the history and jewelry of Mexico City's Casa Maya ! Well, I know - we are kind of veering off our quest for knowledge on Mexico's silver jewelry yet I couldn't help but yell "YES!" when I first stumbled upon the reference in one of my Google searches.

Of course I had to have the book - right away! And when it arrived, fresh and entombed in its sealed plastic wrapping, I dropped everything else that was waiting for my attention and immersed myself in its pages... And I guess I should have already provided this bit of crucial information - I am referring to Sandy Hargrove's, Maya Mexico Jewelry; An Informational Guide, published in 2011 by the Lulu Press in Raleigh, NC.

I liked Maya jewelry from the first time I stumbled upon one of their pieces. In the 1950s, they started producing beautiful designs in copper and brass, oftentimes combining the two metals with silver as well. According to Hargrove, the reason for this turn to non-precious metals was related to the increasing numbers of tourists pouring into Mexico. The people behind Maya saw in that increase the opportunity to service a wider albeit not always as affluent clientele that visited the country and wanted to take something back with them. Affordable jewelry with good craftsmanship and interesting design could be the ideal souvenir. I would add that the late 1940s-1950s was a period in which copper and brass came to the forefront of jewelry design once again not only in Mexico but also in the States - let's not forget the creations of Francisco Rebajes and the all copper, or enamel-over-copper jewelry that was made by Matisse-Renoir and other, less known companies.

Though I cherish all Maya creations, I think I can easily say that my most favorite line consists of the Hubert Harmon designs they produced in brass and copper - they don't surface very often and when they do, they command high prices just because Harmon's original silver pieces are even more impossible to come up with! That's why I don't have any photos to show you either but a quick Google search will prove fruitful...

The designs in which Maya overlays brass and silver on usually hand-hammered copper are also on my "wanted" list and I truly enjoy their copper, brass and green enamel line! Just take a look at the bold, crazy "Carmen Miranda" style of the necklace and bracelet often referred to as "The Kiss" even though it seems that the figures are representations of ancient Maya noblemen (again according to Hargrove possibly even the 7th c. CE king Pacal of Palenque). And note the mask-like features of the grand bull in the "Toro" bracelet and earrings.

Last but not least, the "Eagle / Hawk with Xochitl flowers" cuff - a piece I wanted to lay my hands on for ever and I finally found one.

Enjoy your July 4th weekend, have fun and should you want to join me with stories and photos of your Maya pieces, by all means please do so!

(for specifics on the pieces featured here please click on these links: "Kiss Necklace", "Kiss Bracelet", "Toro Cuff", "Toro Earrings" and "Eagle Cuff")

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Starting with the less celebrated...

Diego Rivera - Mexico City Mural
Well, it would make sense when inaugurating a blog about vintage Mexican silver jewelry to begin with an ode to one of the big maestros, wouldn't it? But then, this is just so predictable!
Without wanting to belittle the creative genius of Spratling or Aguilar or Margot de Taxco (how could I anyway?), wouldn't it be fun if I started with someone whose work is of the highest quality yet about whom we don't really know that much?

Among my most favorite less celebrated silversmiths and designers (and for some reason I am assuming that we are dealing with a man here - don't ask me why!), I like to refer to him as "the heart artist" because he signs his pieces with the initials "A" and "E" inside a heart-shaped "M".

Unfortunately, though he is listed in Bille Hougart's, The Little Book of Mexican Silver, we don't really know much about him (by the way, if you are interested in vintage Mexican jewelry and you don't already have Hougart's book, rush and get it; it's one of those essential references that I keep within reach at all times).

So what do we know about "AEM"? For starters that he operated out of Mexico City as his pieces always bear the indication "D.F" in the hallmarks, which stands for "Distrito Federal", aka... Mexico City.

We also see his signature on jewelry made for Estela Popowski and Rancho Alegre - in fact many a times I have noticed sellers on Ebay identifying "AEM" jewelry as Estela's without the rest of the hallmarks justifying the attribution. All jewelry I have had by "the heart artist" over the last few years belonged in the middle period of Mexico's 20th c. Silver Renaissance so I tend to think that he worked mostly in the 1950s and 1960s?

The "heart artist's" work has never disappointed me. His sense of design is excellent; the quality and craftsmanship on his pieces well above average and quite often, en par with "big name" jewelry. And though he does successfully ply the waters of the more traditional, "archeological" designs, today I would like to share a mod piece of his that is both rare and just so cool... I could not believe my eyes when I saw his signature on it.

Made in the 1950s to early 1960s, I believe, its design creatively follows the trend that big talleres like the Los Castillo and the Los Ballesteros helped establish at the time. You know what I am referring to, right? Modernist, slick pieces in all forms - from necklaces to bracelets to earrings and brooches and rings - that are dominated by the presence of this minimalist shallow "bowl"(?) or "dish", which usually houses a big, assymetrical semi-precious gem or hardstone set in sturdy, hand-made prongs.

I have seen this design with tumbled amethyst, obsidian, all kinds of colored quartz, chrysocolla even - but I had never before encountered a similar piece housing a carved figurine, like the sea blue agate seahorse in this bracelet... It is so refreshing to know that even after years of looking at and handling Mexican silver jewelry, there is always something around the corner that will make you feel there is definitely more in stock!

What I really love about this bracelet is that the lapidary took advantage of the inclusions in the stone to highlight the seahorse's face, underbelly and fins. I find the way the silver background reflects the blue of the agate fascinating. And last but definitely not least, I can't get over the perfect casting of the decorative elements on the "bowl's" either side. They look like stylized waves and bring to mind the salty aroma of late summer nights by the sea...

To see the specifics of the "Seahorse Bracelet", currently available on my Trocadero site, please click here!