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"...


  1. Great story and what luck to have been contacted by the family. I visit Nogales but didn't think much to look for good jewelry there.
    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Tia! I hope you find something extraordinary on your next visit there. If you do, please share with the rest of us...

  2. Thank you for sharing a great article about my uncles. Elias was a pioneer in the introduction of gold and turquoise in Old Town Scottsdale, AZ in late 1950's. He was one of the original artist who made Old Town Scottsdale what it is today. The Martinez Family are legends in Arizona and Nogales, Mexico as pioneers in jewelry making.

    1. It is I who should thank the family for contacting me and sharing all this valuable information with me. The history of Mexico's 20th c. Silver Renaissance has some many unwritten chapters and it is a special honor to help shed even a little bit of light on hitherto unsung maestros.

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