William Spratling and the Taxco School

William Spratling, a 20th-century Renaissance man, was many things—architect, teacher, artist, author, collector, and pilot—but most importantly he was the man who single-handedly revived a dormant industry: silversmithing in the Mexican town of Taxco.

Spratling, a faculty member at Tulane’s School of Architecture, lived in a New Orleans artist’s community, where he also taught sketching, illustrated books, and even collaborated with his friend William Faulkner on a book, Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles. He was attracted to Mexico as a result of some articles he wrote for Architectural Forum magazine and in 1926 began to divide his time between New Orleans and Mexico City, where he spent three summers writing and teaching.

He left Tulane in 1928, returning to Mexico with an advance to write a book—Little Mexico, published in 1932—on the country’s transitional state of affairs. He moved into a house in Taxco, a small village nestled in the mountains between Mexico City and Acapulco.

The mountains around Taxco have deep veins of silver, and mining had brought the village a period of prosperity in the 1700s. But at the time Spratling arrived, the town was isolated and the people were poor.

When Spratling’s friend Dwight Morrow, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, mentioned that the town’s former economy had been based on silver, Spratling began to think about how to resurrect the industry and revitalize the local economy. He sought out elders of the community who still held some of the secrets of Mexican silversmithing and trekked to remote villages in search of artisans. One of the artisans he found was Antonio Navarrete, who accepted Spratling’s invitation to come to Taxco and help establish a workshop.

In those early days, the workshop had no tools or machinery, and the pieces were entirely hand-made by the master silversmith, Navarrete, from designs by Spratling. Spratling brought in local youths as apprentices, and it was this system that led to the revitalization of the silver trade in Taxco. As the apprentices honed their skills and rose through the ranks, Spratling encouraged them to find their own styles and open their own shops, which many did (see “The Silver Circle Widens”). Their individual styles and designs influenced later generations of silversmiths and provided many more people with opportunities for work.

‘Las Delicias.’ Spratling opened his workshop—eventually called the Taller de Las Delicias, after its street—in 1931. It was excellent timing, as the highway between Mexico City and Acapulco was finished that year. Spratling’s workshop began to draw tourists who delighted in watching artisans at work.

Spratling was greatly influenced by pre-Columbian design and used the images and iconography of ancient Mexico as the basis of his designs. He often adopted the stylized animal motifs found in Mexican pottery and incorporated native materials such as amethyst and rosewood into his designs. Early on, he used melted sterling coins for his jewelry, but in general he preferred .980 silver.

The workshop continued to grow over the next few years, switching locations when more space was needed. The name Las Delicias was maintained, while the official company name was Spratling y Artesanos.

By 1934, Spratling—known in the village as “Don Guillermo”—had 14 apprentices working with two master silversmiths who went by the title “maestro” (teacher). There were also two maestro’s apprentices. To fire the imagination of the group and foster a sense of professional competition, each year Spratling held a contest for the silversmiths, in which each artisan was given materials and three days—with pay—to create a design. The winning design often was put into production, and the winner received a monetary prize.

By 1937 Las Delicias employed 100 artisans. It constantly added new designs and discontinued those that didn’t sell. Each piece was hallmarked. Early on, the Spratling mark consisted of a joined “WS” and a “980” mark to indicate the silver content. Later the marks changed to “WS” sunken into a circular mark, with “Taxco” and “980” placed on either side. By the late 1930s, the “WS” was surrounded by “Spratling Made in Mexico.”

Despite the marks, other artisans knocked off many of the Spratling designs. In her book Mexican Silver, Penny Chittim Morrill, an authority on Spratling and the Mexican silver renaissance, reports Spratling’s complaint that “the average life of one of his designs was only one month before it began appearing in shops all over Taxco.”

One Taxco silversmith, Serafin Moctezuma, used Spratling’s designs as a basis for his own and went one step further, using his own initials in a hallmark that resembled Spratling’s when viewed upside-down.

Enter the American market. By 1940, Spratling employed 300 artisans, and Taxco had become a major tourist destination for those seeking silverwork. But the shop wasn’t making money. Spratling signed a contract with an American company, Silson Inc., to provide designs for a line of costume jewelry. He used the stylized motifs of his other jewelry for these designs, so the pieces, made in Rhode Island and New York, are still recognizably “Spratling.” However, according to the third edition of Warman’s Jewelry Identification and Price Guide by Christie Romero, these pieces—hallmarked “Spratling of Mexico, Silson Inc.” in a circle around the “WS” mark—are not as desirable as Spratling originals and do not command the higher prices of the Mexican pieces. The Spratling/Silson relationship lasted about five years.

In the 1940s, when World War II cut Europe off from international trade, the American market needed new product. Meanwhile, a handful of Spratling’s former maestros had opened their own workshops, and other tallers had developed independently. But to take advantage of the new business opportunities, the Taxco silversmiths needed to transform themselves from small tourist-centric shops into larger outfits capable of producing large quantities for the wholesale trade. Some shops, including Las Delicias, began to use machine presses and dies to speed production.

By this time, there were 400 silversmiths working for Spratling. He began to export silver items to U.S. department stores including Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, and Saks. He also developed a line for the Montgomery Ward catalog.

Disaster strikes! Ironically, the 1940s boom in Taxco silver production ultimately led to the downfall of Spratling’s company. To raise money to meet increasing production costs, Spratling sold all but a small percentage of his shares in Spratling y Artesanos. He intended to step back and take a lesser role in the daily responsibilities of the company, but it didn’t work out that way. In his autobiography, File on Spratling, he says: “I was still president of the company but was actually a sort of office boy in disguise, since I had to explain to my board of stockholders why one type of toilet paper had been purchased instead of another kind. A good half of my time was spent in making reports.”

A series of problems beset the company: indecisive leadership, poor equipment choices, fewer new models, and, after squabbles regarding production standards, the end of business with Montgomery Ward. Particularly hurtful to Spratling was the loss of what he felt was one of the most valuable elements of the company—the trust that had existed between the company and its artisans.

In 1946 he sold the remainder of his shares in Spratling y Artesanos and resigned. Noting in his autobiography that the man who had acquired control of the company owed the U.S. Treasury department $15 million in taxes, Spratling said, “It was only a matter of months before our shares were worth zero.”

Alaskan adventure. Spratling left town and bought a six-acre ranch by the river in a small village just south of Taxco. There he planted thousands of fruit trees and bougainvillea among the ancient cypresses and shared the land with a variety of exotic animals. It was there that director John Ford filmed The Fugitive , starring Henry Fonda, in 1947.

Spratling continued to work. He signed a deal with Conquistador, a silver company, to design and create models that that company produced and marketed. The arrangement lasted about a year. Spratling also spent time in Alaska at the request of the governor of Alaska and the chairman of the Arts and Crafts Board of the Department of the Interior—two influential friends from his days in Mexico City. The two hoped to create, as Spratling had in Taxco, an artisanal industry among the native population of Alaska, and they needed the expert’s advice.

Spratling was happy to help. As he had in Mexico, he traveled extensively throughout Alaska, speaking with elders and archaeologists. On one occasion, Spratling, who had recently learned to fly, piloted his plane, El Niño , on a solo flight from Taxco to Juneau in 45 hours and 16 minutes.

He came back to his friends with a plan to construct a central museum of native arts in Alaska. The museum would be joined with numerous craft and exhibition centers throughout the country to become a “Federation of All Alaskan Native Arts.”

The plan was well received, and a group of Native Alaskans went to Spratling’s ranch to learn silversmithing. Spratling himself designed 200 models of jewelry and tableware in silver, gold, and Alaskan indigenous material such as ivory and Kobuk jade to be used as working examples. Unfortunately, government funding never came through, and Spratling’s grand plan was shelved.

A new beginning. Spratling had established a workshop at the ranch, and in 1951 he created another company—William Spratling, S.A.—with no outside financial backing. He was indebted to no one. “It’s a fascinating period, because he could do as he wanted,” says Morrill. He invited a handful of the most talented Taxco silversmiths to work with him and began to create simpler, more streamlined objects that combined silver with wood or tortoiseshell. His new, registered hallmark was a loopy “WS” in script, surrounded by “William Spratling-Taxco-Mexico.”

Spratling’s work was as popular as ever, and in 1953, a Taxco street—Calle de Guillermo Spratling —was named for him, and he was given the title of Hijo Predilecto (“favorite son”). That same year, a national silver fair was established in the town.

Spratling continued to work throughout the 1950s and ’60s and also contributed to some important Mexico-related exhibits, either by lending objects or writing for the catalogs. He received an honorary doctorate from Auburn University, and, in 1965, was honored by the Mexican and North American Institute for Cultural Relations in Mexico City for his contributions to Taxco and to Mexico as a whole.

In 1967, Spratling died as a result of a car accident. In the years before his death, he had made plans to create the Museo de Taxco, a museum that would house much of his collection of pre-Columbian art. Run by a tax-free foundation set in place by his will, the museum is now known as the Museo William Spratling.

‘Getting his moment.’ “Bill Spratling was a very imposing man—very strong and very gracious,” says Morrill, who has a personal connection to her subject: Her grandparents opened the first tourist hotel in Taxco, in 1942. Spratling was good friends with her grandmother, and Morrill met him on a visit to Taxco in her teens.

Currently on the faculty at Georgetown University, Morrill recently established a Taxco collection at the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University, complete with original early Spratling design drawings and other Taxco research materials. She curated the groundbreaking exhibit, “Maestros de Plata: William Spratling and the Mexican Silver Renaissance,” which will open June 19 at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

“For all his personality quirks, he had a real influence on other people,” Morrill says. “He was very much an artist. For me, what he accomplished—what’s left of his work, the physical remains—is profound. One of the last things he did was produce furniture for Marilyn Monroe on his ranch. Everybody wanted to meet this man—Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon …

“So here is this giant of the 20th century, and he’s been pretty much forgotten, sidelined—and at last he’s getting his moment. As the show [“Maestros de Plata”] goes across the country, the museums are paying attention, and they’re starting to buy. I feel like it’s a great coup.”

Author’s note: According to Warman’s Jewelry, more than 10,000 silversmiths work in Taxco today, and “Taxco Treasures” are sold on QVC. But period pieces are avidly collected, and there are a number of helpful books and Web sites on the topic. Much of the information provided here was drawn from Penny Morrill’s book, Mexican Silver, an invaluable source of comprehensive information. Carole A. Berk provided photography for the book, and her Web site (www.caroleberk.com) lists historical information as well as items for sale.

The Web site www.spratlingsilver.com includes photos of hallmarks, tips on collecting, and a forum for enthusiasts. Warman’s Jewelry by Christie Romero is an excellent source of information on 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century fine and costume jewelry, with extensive photography and pricing information.

Spratling’s autobiography, File on Spratling, is long out of print, but it’s possible to find copies through used books sites on the Internet.