These are stressful times, and—I won’t lie to you—I an once again seeking consolation in jewelry. Not just any jewelry, but jewelry with substance: hefty, hand-wrought pieces from the distant past. Pieces that don’t seem old because they’re so beautifully designed and so well made. The pleasure I get from them is palpable. I’m holding artistry in my hands, pride in workmanship—something real to distract me from all the falsehood in the world. That’s my excuse, anyhow, for going a wee bit overboard.
My favorite truth merchant these days is Héctor Aguilar, one of the great designers of the Mexican silver renaissance. Before I say another word, let me show you this necklace.
It’s a garland of ribbons imagined in silver, and though it’s heavy (four ounces!), it drapes so beautifully I’m hardly aware of it—until I see it in a mirror and fall in love with it again. Jewelry design at this level owes as much to engineering as to art. I’d been searching for this piece for months, and was thrilled to see it offered online at Niederkorn Silver on Ruby Lane.
Wearing Mexican silver has taught me to appreciate this metal I once thought inferior to gold. The ribbon necklace, over 75 years old, has acquired the soft, lustrous patina only time can impart. Patina is not tarnish, though both are products of oxidation. Tarnish is a dull film that makes silver look yellow or dirty. It can be buffed away with a cloth, or, if it’s really filthy, scoured away with polish. Patina is a layer of soft grey richness over what started out as a mirror-bright finish. It adds to the value of a piece—which is why knowledgable silver dealers do not polish their wares, but leave it to the buyer to decide whether, or how much, to buff.
Aguilar’s jewelry doesn’t tarnish readily because its silver content is higher than sterling. Tiny tutorial: Pure silver is too soft to be ideal for jewelry. Sterling silver is almost pure, 925 parts per thousand. (The rest is usually copper and/or zinc. By law, Mexican silver had to be at least 925 to be hallmarked ‘Silver’.) The great Mexican designers, including Aguilar, William Spratling (who I wrote about here and here) and Matilde Poulat (who I wrote about here) all tinkered with various alloys to get the effects they wanted. Spratling silver is 980 parts per thousand and almost white. Aguilar’s is 940 parts per thousand (alloyed with copper and cadmium) and has a heft I particularly love.
The bracelet above, for example, weighs nearly three and a half ounces. But it’s sinuous; it moves; it knows how to wrap around a wrist. To quote Penny C. Morrill, who wrote most of the important books about Mexican silver, ‘The powerful impact of [Aguilar’s] jewelry can be attributed to his manipulation of line….The thick gauge and purity of the silver heightened [its] strong, almost organic quality…’
I bought the bracelet (on sale!) in another shop on Ruby Lane called Del Mar II. It looks to me like it was inspired by Pre-Columbian motifs, like a lot of Mexican jewelry. But it’s also, to use a much bandied and misused word, timeless.
The bracelet above is not my usual style. I had to see it on someone else—my dealer friend Kathi Jo, who owns a similar one—to fall for it. The stones are chrysocolla, a mineral that forms in the presence of copper. (The red in the center stone is cuprite, a dead giveaway that it was mined in Mexico.) In the past, I wouldn’t have worn anything this bold. But now I think of it as my Bracelet of Submission, kin to the cuffs that Wonder Woman wears as a symbol of past oppression. To be a woman in 2017—or any year—is to need some version of Wonder Woman’s cuffs. Here’s one that’s a bit girlier:
It’s Aguilar’s V-chain, whose eponymous Vs are formed by interlinked loops—a dynamic design I’m happy to own. Ditto the playful bracelets below, which can be clasped together to make a choker (though I prefer to look at them together on my wrist).
So this, dear reader, is how I cosset myself in the dark days of a winter that seems determined to get darker: I look at elegant work by an artist who, with his American-born wife, ran a successful business that contributed to the culture and economy of his country. He lived an interesting life, but—as with all great artists—the true essence of the life can be found in the work.
I’ll probably collect more. It beats reading the newspapers.