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!