South of the Border Style Gets Sexy

Though designer Daniel Espinosa hails from the Mexican town of Taxco, home to the silversmith studio founded by William Spratling, you wouldn’t know it by looking at his jewelry: Espinosa’s oversize and sexy styles for women in silver, gold, and colored stones depart from Spratling’s chunky silver pieces featuring animal and plant forms. Spratling was the founder of the Mexican silver industry, and his pieces are prized by collectors. Spratling also inspired Espinosa’s interest—but not his style—in jewelry. “Spratling is the Georg Jensen of Mexico—minus the style,” Espinosa says.

Espinosa posed a new challenge to the skilled jewelry workers of Taxco, who had spent years exporting Spratling-inspired jewelry: Exercise their underutilized talents by making a different style of jewelry—Espinosa’s. They would simultaneously revitalize the skills they acquired from Spratling protégés and renew international interest in Mexican silver.

Espinosa’s nine-year-old business is now helping transform the image of Mexican jewelry from ethnic to sophisticated. He employs 150 Taxco-trained craftsmen—mainly descendants of former Spratling employees, including grandchildren of Spratling workers—to make lines. Many laborers use some of the same manufacturing processes, such as die stamping, as Spratling did. The result is modern jewelry design made solely by Mexicans.

Penny Morrill, Mexican silver expert and author of four books on Spratling, hosts educational shows, seminars, and lectures to highlight new talent from Mexico. Morrill—who has seen too many Mexican jewelers copy Spratling designs—believes modern-day designers should use the knowledge base that Spratling developed to create new looks. “Copies are a dead-end street,” she says. “Creating unique designs make for a better Taxco and a better Mexico.”

Espinosa studied abroad for two years at the Gemological Institute of America and other schools in Italy, the Netherlands, and New York City, learning different styles and techniques. But when he launched his line in 1997, Mexicans were puzzled. “They looked at us and said, ‘What are you doing?’” he recalls of initial reactions to his jewelry.

Undeterred by rejection, he placed the jewelry in a showroom in Mexico City and hired a public relations firm to help get his name out—and get pieces on celebrities (Madonna was the first). Then he accepted some good advice on winning over consumers: First, crack the toughest nut the country has to offer. That meant selling his jewelry in the conservative town of Puebla, 60 miles southeast of Mexico City. A trio of socialites got the city hooked through home-based sales, and Espinosa boutiques were born.

Espinosa’s style is not for shrinking violets. “It’s for women who feel and understand new ways of using accessories and jewelry,” says the designer. Among his lines are the Acapulco collection, which offers a Caribbean feel with turquoise and tiger’s eye mixed with vermeil, and the metal-intense Etruscan collection featuring massive hand-hammered bangles and disc pendants in either sterling silver or 18k yellow gold. Because of worldwide demand, Espinosa is always refreshing collections, with some additions lasting not more than six months. “Every one or two months we look at new shapes and color combinations,” he says.

His look is so bold that some mistake it for European design. Christian Saruvi, who owns a store in Toronto with a new Espinosa boutique, says that during the three-day grand opening, customers didn’t believe the jewelry was Mexican. “People would ask, ‘Is it made in Italy?’ and ‘Is the designer Italian?’” he says.

Now the Espinosa brand is helping establish Mexico as a hip fashion source. The designer has 24 jewelry boutiques worldwide (many in Mexico), dresses celebrities such as Eva Longoria (a Mexican-American) of Desperate Housewives fame, garners numerous press clips about his Mexican boutiques every month (“We always believed that public relations was a very important part of making the jewelry a brand,” he says), and has been doing stints for two years on the American QVC shopping channel. “When you see the sold-out sign flashing, that’s the best thing that can happen,” he says of a day of sales.