My late friend Juliette used to say, “I don’t understand why you wear gold, when you could be wearing silver—the most beautiful, sensuous metal there is.” I disagreed. For me, silver, especially the Scandinavian Modern stuff she adored, was several degrees too cool. Whereas gold, yellow gold, was warm and rich—more flattering, I thought, to my sallow skin. Gold never tarnished. Gold was serious.
But…I had noticed that certain iconic jewelry designs rang truer in silver than in gold—Elsa Peretti’s Bone Cuff, for example. And I knew some seriously stylish women who wore armfuls of silver bangles, a look I admired but could not emulate because most bangles are too large for me. I owned some silver bracelets, which I trotted out occasionally, but they were not my native language.
I began seeing silver differently in Santa Fe. My husband and I traveled there one summer for the Opera and kept coming back. We’d always visit a gallery on Canyon Road (which is jammed with galleries) called Casa Navarro. They sold Mexican antiquities and objets d’art—breathtaking pieces that wouldn’t have worked in my home if I had the budget for them, which I didn’t. They also had a case of jewelry by William Spratling. My husband said Spratling was important. I didn’t know how important he was.
Well, I’ll tell you how important he was he was. Spratling was the American artist and designer who almost single-handedly launched a renaissance in Mexican silversmithing. You know all that silver that says “Made in Taxco”? That’s his doing. Spratling was the guy who designed the astonishing bracelet, inspired by a bicycle chain, at the top of this post. I bought it because Casa Navarro put it on sale, because it fit me, and because it felt so good on my wrist I didn’t want to take it off.
Mexico had been devastated by its decade of revolution (1910-1920). During the 20s, led by the artist Diego Rivera, the country began forging a new cultural identity inspired by its ancient past. In 1931, Spratling settled in the old silver mining city of Taxco with the idea of creating an industry to benefit the impoverished locals. He bought a tiny house, opened a workshop, and hired a goldsmith named Artemis Navarrete to teach the techniques of metalsmithing to the neighborhood boys. They produced jewelry in Spratling’s designs, which were based on Pre-Columbian motifs.
At the beginning, Navarrete smelted silver one-peso coins in a brazier and taught his apprentices to work the metal by hand. (The house had no electricity.) Some of those apprentices—Antonio Castillo and Antonio Pineda, for example—became major designers in their own right. From the 30s through the 60s, the height of the Mexican silver era—I’m trying very hard not to call it a golden age—there were hundreds of studios producing the most intricate, beautiful work, much of it by hand. Many pieces were folkloric—inspired by ancient Aztec motifs—but many were as boldly modern as their Scandinavian counterparts.
For me, Mexican silver is as hot as Scandinavian silver is cool. It’s full of passion. It cries out to be worn—worn by me. And Juliette, wherever she is, is having the last laugh.
Spratling produced thousands of designs in his exuberant, adventurous lifetime. The bicycle chain bracelet is a late piece, from the 60s. Once I acquired it, it seemed obvious that I also needed to own at least one of his early designs.
And this was it: the Aztec-inspired X and O bracelet from the early 40s (if I read the hallmarks correctly). It has a satisfying heft, and you clasp it with a pin attached to the safety chain—a bit fussy, but efficient.
I bought this bracelet from an online shop called Look at that Necklace! Its proprietor, Kathi Jo Ackerman, knows more about Mexican silver than almost anyone, especially now that so many of the major sellers have retired or passed on. She’s generous with her knowledge. And you’ll be hearing more about her, because I, who disdained to wear silver, have become a capital-C Collector. I fell so hard… It happened so fast…