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Plateria La Azteca, John Wayne’s Red Rived Belt Buckle and the Silversmithing of the Martinez family: Part Two

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A week or so ago, I embarked on a “journey” to the town of Nogales in the state of Sonora, Mexico to trace the origins of a gorgeous vintage Mexican silver necklace I acquired bearing the unkown signature of La Azteca. My virtual trip was definitely not the result of a revelation – it was prompted by a polite and very informative message I received from a gentleman who responded to my frustration about the lack of information on the history of Plateria La Azteca by telling me that it was actually his family who owned and operated it in the 1940s until the mid-1960s. Just across the border from its US counterpart in Texas, Nogales, Sonora was a classic frontier town with its share of bootlegging, freewheeling and even combat during the Mexican Revolution. In the 1940s, with several Western movies shot in the surrounding area, it became the playground for famous actors who would cross over to visit La Caverna, its renowned club-restaurant, housed in a man-made cave-prison ostensibly dug out by prisoners themselves. In its long life (the place finally burned down in 1983 never to reopen) boasted the patronage of personalities as disparate as Dillinger and John Wayne. Very close to La Caverna (possibly even next to it), the Martinez family had opened their jewelry shop, La Azteca. Brothers Jose and Elias Martinez were active jewelry makers at the time and at least Elias continued in the same business after the two moved to the States, presumably in the mid- to later 1960s. Elias passed away in Scottsdale, AZ in 2005 but I was offered an old newspaper clipping his brother kept which featured the younger Martinez’s silver- and gold-smithing career in the States. According to Jose Martinez’s son, the store’s proximity to the La Caverna restaurant and the number of US films being shot in the area secured a rather famous clientele for La Azteca, among them none other than the legendary John Wayne. It is actually possible that the famous belt buckle that John Wayne wore in “Red River” was made by the Martinez family at La Azteca. I hope you are at least as thrilled as I am with my discoveries so please come back in a few day for the third and last installment of this entry with more specifics about the “Red River” buckles and “La Azteca”…  ...

Plateria La Azteca, John Wayne’s Red River Belt Buckle and the silversmithing of the Martinez family: Part One

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Anybody who loves vintage Mexican silver jewelry and is interested in the context within which those handmade treasures were created is painfully aware of the dearth of information on the circumstances of most maestros responsible for Mexico’s 20th c. Silver Renaissance. There are, of course, some excellent works on several of the most famous makers yet we have barely (if at all) even scratched the surface where the majority of the silversmiths responsible for it is concerned. We are all trying to compose a picture of those amazing decades following the 1920s by putting together little bits and pieces of information gleaned from various sources – often ones that are not even relevant to the history of jewelry making per se. In our quest the web has definitely proven an invaluable “deus ex machina” – and just a month or so ago, I was privileged enough to learn about Plateria La Azteca, a little known taller in Nogales, Texas; this unexpected revelation made me want to scream with enthusiasm! It all started with a gorgeous necklace I acquired bearing that signature – it’s one of those pieces that can drive you crazy because its quality is such that you feel there should be something in the books about the maker yet … it’s only silence you encounter. Based on the way the necklace was hallmarked, I knew it was made in the 1940s and hypothesized it had a Mexico City provenance. So I wrote it up and put out there for sale. Later, going through my inventory, I found a zodiac pin with turquoise chip inlay also made by La Azteca – and some further research on Ebay revealed a couple of similar examples. The pins were well-made for sure but nothing like the necklace. And then, the email came – from a gentleman living in the US who told me it was his father and his uncle who, in the 1940s, owned and operated Plateria La Azteca in … Nogales, Texas! Who had ever heard of Nogales within the context of vintage Mexican silver jewelry? Well, the story keeps getting more interesting – so please come back in a couple of days for the second...

Hearts of Stone for … Valentine’s

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It’s about Valentine’s Day and most of us get into that funny, blissful-as-a-puppy mode again! And even if our budgets have probably not recovered from the holidays yet, the search for the absolutely perfect gift for our precious “others” is back on. Well, don’t go too far as I have some good suggestions – or so I believe at least… There is a whole genre within vintage Mexican silver jewelry that can work perfectly for you this year – and, hopefully, also ever after! Made primarily in the pre-1948 period, these silver and carved stone heart pieces come in all forms and in several colors as well. Though I have never seen one with amethyst – quite surprisingly if you think of the stone’s popularity with Mexican silversmiths and designers – “heart” bracelets, brooches, pins and earrings feature agates in various colors and, of course, the quintessential “Mexican jade”. Curvaceous, set in repousse or plain frames, at times having dramatic arrows going through them, the stone hearts express in the best possible way the elation and apprehension, the joy and pain that love can cause. And though in the years I have been dealing and learning about Mexican silver jewelry I have had the opportunity to own several examples, I have never seen a piece bearing a maker’s signature – they all bear the generic “SILVER” or “STERLING” and “MEXICO” hallmark. Most importantly? I have also never ever found a necklace in this design – could this be my lucky year? HAPPY VALENTINE’S...

The magic of JOSE FEDERICO’s Enamels

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I am finally back after months and months of promising myself that tomorrow would be the day to start a new post. I guess later is better than never but you would have to be the judge of this… And since Spring seems to be with us already this year, I thought I’d write about enamel jewelry because I always found them perfect for the sunny days of spring and summer… I have an old fascination with enameled jewelry – there is something about the transparent lucidity of guilloche that reminds me of enchanted waters and fragile aquatic Nymphs while the saturated opaqueness of champleve takes my breath away with its strong, almost primordial presence. When I got to know Mexican jewelry, circumstances were already mature for a love affair with Margot’s exquisite enamels – I don’t need to talk about her here; who doesn’t know Margot or the latest book about her enamel work by Penny Morrill (if you don’t, just look up Penny Morrill, Margot Van Voorhies, The Art of Mexican Enamelwork). I do feel the need, however, to feature some of the pieces by Jose Federico, an artist whose enamelwork, in my humble opinion, is the closest thing to the Great Lady’s jewelry. I have never seen better matching colors and higher quality in the work of any of Margot’s contemporaries or the ones that still today produce her designs using the old molds that she had to give up as a result of her bankruptcy in the early 1970s. Interestingly enough Jose Federico is not mentioned – at least to my knowledge – in any of the classic reference books on vintage Mexican silver jewelry with one exception; the work of Leslie Pina (Mexican Silver Jewelry Details, see p. 8-9). Yet his work is absolutely gorgeous! Over the years I have had several of his pieces – mostly brooches – all of them in emulation of classic Margot designs. Very recently I sold a rare necklace signed by him in a difficult to find color as well. And even though for the longest time I thought that he stopped producing before 1980, my theory was abruptly demolished when last year, I found a pin with his initials side by side a post-1980 registration code. And then I was told that “JF”, whom I knew as Jose Federico, the Mexican silver enamelist following into Margot de Taxco’s footsteps, was also known as Federico Jimenez. Using the same signature, Jimenez who was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, lives in the American Southwest and creates jewelry combining his Mexican heritage with Native American influences. I had my doubts about this identification but came very close to believing it might be true (actually in an earlier version of this posting I wrote so) until a customer of mine, who bought the Jimenez armband, emailed me to tell me that she had the artist inscribe one of his pieces that she already owned at a show. The inscription read: “As the Stars are to the Night, So are Jewels to the Woman”. That inscription made me believe that my Jose Federico and Federico Jimenez had to be the same person. Why else would a silversmith and designer of Native American inspired jewelry use Margot de Taxco’s famous motto unless there was a very close connection between them? I have to say that I was happy for a little while thinking that a discovery had been made – until a couple of people kindly wrote to inform me that they knew Jimenez and that the two “JF”s are not the same person (you can read their comments on this post for...

The Incredible Casa Maya

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What can be more vexing to a trained historian looking for information on a subject than the dearth of relevant literature? Almost nothing – believe me when I tell you! And unfortunately, this is the case with vintage Mexican jewelry. Despite the existence of a handful of good works on Taxco’s Silver Renaissance, the most recent among them being Penny Morrill’s book on Margot de Taxco’s enamel designs, and several interviews with Taxco maestros and magazine articles scattered here and there, there is so much that we still don’t know about the majority of those involved in it, both “big names” and “less celebrated” silversmiths. One could easily say that we have barely scratched the surface… So imagine my surprise when I discovered that there is a whole new publication on – can you even guess? – the history and jewelry of Mexico City’s Casa Maya! Well, I know – we are kind of veering off our quest for knowledge on Mexico’s silver jewelry yet I couldn’t help but yell “YES!” when I first stumbled upon the reference in one of my Google searches. Of course I had to have the book – right away! And when it arrived, fresh and entombed in its sealed plastic wrapping, I dropped everything else that was waiting for my attention and immersed myself in its pages… And I guess I should have already provided this bit of crucial information – I am referring to Sandy Hargrove’s, Maya Mexico Jewelry; An Informational Guide, published in 2011 by the Lulu Press in Raleigh, NC. I liked Maya jewelry from the first time I stumbled upon one of their pieces. In the 1950s, they started producing beautiful designs in copper and brass, oftentimes combining the two metals with silver as well. According to Hargrove, the reason for this turn to non-precious metals was related to the increasing numbers of tourists pouring into Mexico. The people behind Maya saw in that increase the opportunity to service a wider albeit not always as affluent clientele that visited the country and wanted to take something back with them. Affordable jewelry with good craftsmanship and interesting design could be the ideal souvenir. I would add that the late 1940s-1950s was a period in which copper and brass came to the forefront of jewelry design once again not only in Mexico but also in the States – let’s not forget the creations of Francisco Rebajes and the all copper, or enamel-over-copper jewelry that was made by Matisse-Renoir and other, less known companies. Though I cherish all Maya creations, I think I can easily say that my most favorite line consists of the Hubert Harmon designs they produced in brass and copper – they don’t surface very often and when they do, they command high prices just because Harmon’s original silver pieces are even more impossible to come up with! That’s why I don’t have any photos to show you either but a quick Google search will prove fruitful… The designs in which Maya overlays brass and silver on usually hand-hammered copper are also on my “wanted” list and I truly enjoy their copper, brass and green enamel line! Just take a look at the bold, crazy “Carmen Miranda” style of the necklace and bracelet often referred to as “The Kiss” even though it seems that the figures are representations of ancient Maya noblemen (again according to Hargrove possibly even the 7th c. CE king Pacal of Palenque). And note the mask-like features of the grand bull in the “Toro” bracelet and earrings. Last but not least, the “Eagle / Hawk with Xochitl flowers” cuff – a piece I wanted to lay my hands on for ever and I finally found one. Enjoy your July 4th weekend, have fun and should you want to join me with stories and photos of your Maya pieces, by all means please do...

Starting with the less celebrated…

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Well, it would make sense when inaugurating a blog about vintage Mexican silver jewelry to begin with an ode to one of the big maestros, wouldn’t it? But then, this is just so predictable! Without wanting to belittle the creative genius of Spratling or Aguilar or Margot de Taxco (how could I anyway?), wouldn’t it be fun if I started with someone whose work is of the highest quality yet about whom we don’t really know that much? Among my most favorite less celebrated silversmiths and designers (and for some reason I am assuming that we are dealing with a man here – don’t ask me why!), I like to refer to him as “the heart artist” because he signs his pieces with the initials “A” and “E” inside a heart-shaped “M”. Unfortunately, though he is listed in Bille Hougart’s, The Little Book of Mexican Silver, we don’t really know much about him (by the way, if you are interested in vintage Mexican jewelry and you don’t already have Hougart’s book, rush and get it; it’s one of those essential references that I keep within reach at all times). So what do we know about “AEM”? For starters that he operated out of Mexico City as his pieces always bear the indication “D.F” in the hallmarks, which stands for “Distrito Federal”, aka… Mexico City. We also see his signature on jewelry made for Estela Popowski and Rancho Alegre – in fact many a times I have noticed sellers on Ebay identifying “AEM” jewelry as Estela’s without the rest of the hallmarks justifying the attribution. All jewelry I have had by “the heart artist” over the last few years belonged in the middle period of Mexico’s 20th c. Silver Renaissance so I tend to think that he worked mostly in the 1950s and 1960s? The “heart artist’s” work has never disappointed me. His sense of design is excellent; the quality and craftsmanship on his pieces well above average and quite often, en par with “big name” jewelry. And though he does successfully ply the waters of the more traditional, “archeological” designs, today I would like to share a mod piece of his that is both rare and just so cool… I could not believe my eyes when I saw his signature on it. Made in the 1950s to early 1960s, I believe, its design creatively follows the trend that big talleres like the Los Castillo and the Los Ballesteros helped establish at the time. You know what I am referring to, right? Modernist, slick pieces in all forms – from necklaces to bracelets to earrings and brooches and rings – that are dominated by the presence of this minimalist shallow “bowl”(?) or “dish”, which usually houses a big, assymetrical semi-precious gem or hardstone set in sturdy, hand-made prongs. I have seen this design with tumbled amethyst, obsidian, all kinds of colored quartz, chrysocolla even – but I had never before encountered a similar piece housing a carved figurine, like the sea blue agate seahorse in this bracelet… It is so refreshing to know that even after years of looking at and handling Mexican silver jewelry, there is always something around the corner that will make you feel there is definitely more in stock! What I really love about this bracelet is that the lapidary took advantage of the inclusions in the stone to highlight the seahorse’s face, underbelly and fins. I find the way the silver background reflects the blue of the agate fascinating. And last but definitely not least, I can’t get over the perfect casting of the decorative elements on the “bowl’s” either side. They look like stylized waves and bring to mind the salty aroma of late summer nights by the...

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