I do like real ones, provided they’re not venomous. Snakes, I’ve always thought, have nice smiles. And they’re not the least bit slimy—they’re sleek and dry, and go about their business quietly. Snake jewelry, however, is something I never aspired to own until I started collecting old Mexican silver and saw the playful, powerful snake designs of Margot de Taxco and Matilde Poulat. They were more than the sum of their fluidly assembled parts. They were meaningful.
Snakes are important in Mexican folklore. Quetzalcoatl, the principal deity of the ancient Aztecs, was a Plumed Serpent—literally, “bird-snake,” a snake that rises upward, symbolizing rebirth after death. In Aztec myth, the Plumed Serpent was said to re-enter the world every 52 years, taking different forms. So it’s plausible that the Aztec king Moctezuma II believed that his Spanish conqueror, Cortés, was Quetzalcoatl in disguise, as Cortés later claimed. In any case, Cortés was the beginning of the end for the Aztecs, the last of the great Mesoamerican civilizations.
Poulat’s snake is very Aztec-y indeed. It first appeared in the 30s and slithered on long after Poulat died (in 1960) and her nephew Ricardo Salas took over her studio. As with all Poulat’s designs, it appeared in many different versions over the years—the head and tail were always subject to tinkering. But the body, fashioned of innumerable handmade coils, stayed the same. I looked at pictures of this design online for a long time before my dealer friend Kathi Jo persuaded me to meet one in person. “This is a piece you really have to hold in your hand,” she said. She was right. The bracelet wraps around your wrist with a sinuous ease; it’s a sly little showpiece. I bought it, along with a Salas-era necklace from the 60s. They’re a kick to wear; they make me feel regal.
Margot de Taxco’s snake design came later, in the 50s. It’s completely different from Poulat’s—more like a real snake—but just as iconic. Margot’s snake won a major design prize and became wildly popular; she made about a zillion of them.
So they’re not hard to find. But they have issues, because they’re enameled. Margot was famous for her enamelwork. She used it to bring vibrant color to her already exuberant designs. But after fifty or sixty years, enamel can get pretty banged up on a complex jointed piece like the snake, especially the bracelet. It’s hard to find one without large areas of enamel loss. The one pictured at right and at the top of this post, bought at auction online, is intact, but the clasp needs a going-over by a good silversmith. And then I’m going to be nervous about wearing it.
The other issue with Margot’s snakes is that so many were made after her death. Some are from the original molds, which she left to the silversmiths who worked for her, but they’re still considered reproductions. And the colors can get pretty garish.
Kathi Jo, bless her, dug into her vast pile of Mexican silver and pulled out a vintage Margot snake necklace I’m happy to wear, completely naked and enamel free (below). It’s deeply textured—the textured places are where the enamel would have gone—and for me, the texture is as interesting, maybe more interesting, than the enameled versions.
In the same online auction where I bought the snake bracelet, there was another enameled Margot bracelet, one collectors fight over: a whimsical blue fish. I bid on it because it’s so iconic and so rare, even though I could see the enamel had a small ding. (It’s almost impossible to find one of these without major damage.) There was a brief bidding war, but I got it. You can see the ding just below the head; the rest is perfect. Still, I can’t not look at that bare spot and the crazed enamel next to it.
This bracelet breaks my cardinal rule of jewelry buying, which is that a piece has to be something I’ll wear. I could wear this—it fits, it’s lovely. But I can’t risk more damage. I think it’s going to be stored in a soft place and worn only in a roomful of pillows. And I think I don’t want to be that kind of collector.