If the title of this post puts you in mind of Harry Belafonte, you may be old enough to have learned one of the tougher truths of jewelry buying: By the time you can afford an expensive necklace, you may no longer have the neck for it. This has happened to me, but it hasn’t stopped me. Dreamer that I am, I figure people will look at the necklace and maybe not notice the neck. When I wear the piece shown here, I’m pretty sure nobody sees the neck.
It’s 50s Mexican silver, and like the bracelet in last week’s post, it’s by Matilde Poulat, who signed her pieces “Matl.” Our Matilde, she be pricey. Obviously the workmanship is exceptional. All those tiny silver spirals were fashioned by hand, the stones hand set, the pyramidal amethysts perfectly matched. But it’s the designs themselves that wow me—opulent, exuberant, whimsical, “intensely Mexican and intensely her own,” as William Spratling put it.
Poulat launched Matl in 1934, and by the 40s there was an enormous demand for her work—enough so that other studios started riffing on her designs. I won’t say stealing her designs, but it’s very clear she inspired a whole lot of silversmiths. In fact, I first encountered her aesthetic in the hand mirror at right, which has a hallmark from a studio I’d never heard of. It’s a beautiful object even if it is a knock-off.
Which brings me to another tough truth: When shopping for vintage Mexican silver, especially from dealers who don’t specialize in it, things may not be what they seem. To draw your eye in a web search, a dealer might tag a piece as “Matl-esque” or “Matl-inspired.” Which is completely Kosher. But the price should be lower than for a genuine Matl. To get a feel for this market, do some looking before you buy—looking’s the fun part, anyhow. Start with the web site Trocadero. I’ve met some great dealers there who are passionate about this stuff and happy to educate shoppers whether or not they buy. If you get serious about Mex, you’ll also want to know something about hallmarks—some pieces are outright fakes—and there’s a book for that.
After Poulat died in 1960, her designs were produced by her nephew Ricardo Salas, who had worked with her since boyhood. His pieces are marked Matl Salas or (after 1970) MS-12. Salas was a master craftsman and brilliant designer in his own right, but some of the studio’s later pieces have pared-down designs that reflect tough economic times. In the 60s and 70s, because of higher taxes and increasing demands from the silversmiths’ union, running a silver workshop became so expensive that most major studios were forced into bankruptcy. An era of astonishing creativity was over.
And what of Matilde herself, whose designs crackle with life? Though it’s known she was a painter before becoming a silver maestra, nobody seems to know exactly when she was born or what she looked like. As far as I can tell, there are no existing photographs of her. How can someone so important be so gone, yet still so present?
…And now that I look, none of the great Mexican silver designers of the 30s, 40s and 50s has a Wikipedia page, with the exception of Spratling, who started it all (and who wasn’t Mexican). For heaven’s sake—even Bess Flowers, queen of the movie extras, has a page of her own. No wonder my dealer friend Kathi Jo worries that important pieces of Mex are being melted down for scrap by people who don’t know what they are. The flow of estate pieces, she says, has slowed to a trickle. It would be a deep, deep shame to lose this legacy.
Sources: Pretty much all the important books on Mexican Silver were written by Penny C. Morrill. Mexican Silver: 20th Century Hand-wrought Jewelry & Silver, co-authored by Carole Berk (a hugely important collector and curator), is a good place to start.