By Celia Wren.
The silver jaguar carries six amethysts: one in each paw, and on its back and tail. The brooch is remarkable on its own merits, but as part of a new exhibition at the Mexican Cultural Institute, the jewelry also epitomizes the style of its designer, William Spratling.
“Silver on Silver: William Spratling, an American in Taxco” showcases pieces that Spratling created in Taxco, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where he lived for nearly four decades. Taxco, located in a region once rich in silver deposits, was a historic mining hub, but by 1929, when Spratling moved there, the industry had fallen on hard times. The American-born designer and entrepreneur went on to make silver pieces — including jewelry and tableware — inspired by local history, geology, flora and fauna. He used indigenous materials, including amethysts, and reworked motifs such as the jaguar, which were common in pre-Columbian art.
“He understood the context really well,” said Ana Elena Mallet of Mexico City, who curated “Silver on Silver,” which is running through Oct. 31 as part of the Mexican Cultural Institute’s 25th-anniversary festivities.
Spratling’s understanding of context was a natural extension of his love affair with Mexico. He was born in Sonyea, N.Y., in 1900 and taught architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans as a young man. In 1926, a teaching gig took him to Mexico, where he met Diego Rivera and other Mexican intellectuals and artists. When Spratling settled in Taxco, he founded a silverworking workshop that produced high-quality wares and trained local residents in skills related to the industry. A number of those artisans started their own businesses, making Taxco a major source of silver pieces for the international market.
Touring the “Silver on Silver” exhibition recently, Mallet pointed out the phases of Spratling’s design career. After settling in Taxco, he created silver objects that reflected local life and Mexican flora and fauna, such as a silver owl with obsidian eyes and a monkey paperweight. Later, Spratling’s work began to echo pre-Columbian motifs, an approach that tied in with his collection of pre-Columbian art.
The designer (who died in a car crash in 1967 at age 66) also went through a period of creating pieces that were more sophisticated and streamlined, including a silver-and-ebony Art Deco coffee set with tiny jaguars serving as lid handles, and a set of candlesticks with stems like clustered tendrils.
The roughly 150 items in the “Silver on Silver” exhibition also include original blueprints for some of Spratling’s designs; letters and other documents; and never-exhibited photographs of Spratling, who also was an aviator and writer.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Silver on Silver: William Spratling, an American in Taxco Through Oct. 31 at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW. Hours: Weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. Free. www.instituteofmexicodc.org.