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...