When William Spratling made his first piece of jewelry in Taxco, Mexico in the 1930s, he couldn't have dreamed that he was beginning a cultural phenomenon that would revitalize an entire city. Spratling's designs inspired jewelers in Taxco to take advantage of two regional resources—abundant silver and images from their own history and culture. The jewelry that emerged from Taxco remains some of the most collected and popular jewelry designs of the 20th century.
Taxco jewelry gets its name from the city of Taxco, Guerrera in Mexico. Silver was discovered in the area by conquistador Cortes, who staked a mining claim there in 1521. The city of Taxco was founded as a colonial mining town in the 1700s.
Despite the fact that a supply of silver was readily available, Taxco did not become a center for silver jewelry production until the 20th century, when roads built into the region brought tourists and money into the region.
American architect and artist William Spratling settled in Taxco in 1929. In 1931, he began making silver jewelry by melting down silver pesos at his kitchen table. Spratling employed local silversmiths and apprentices to create silver jewelry to sell to tourists. Soon, other jewelers sprang up in Taxco, taking design cues from Spratling.
The unrest in Europe during World War II created a huge demand for fine jewelry in America, and Spratling began selling to department stores such as Bonwit Teller, Marshall Fields and Tiffany & Co.
After Spratling's death in 1967, his designs and hallmarks were purchased by a company that continues to produce silver jewelry.
Spratling and his followers took their design cues from motifs in Taxco history, incorporating pre-Columbian designs and imagery into their work. The pieces are typically large and ornate and made from .925 or .950 sterling silver, considered the finest of the silver alloys.
Spratling and other designers working during the 1930s to 1950s used native materials such as amethyst and turquoise, along with coral, obsidian and tortoise shell in their sterling silver designs.
Taxco silver jewelry can be identified by looking for hallmarks typical of the region on silver jewelry pieces. Until 1979, all Mexican silver jewelry was stamped with an Eagle that denoted the piece's origination.
Spratling Taxco silver pieces have a variety of hallmarks that use either the Spratling name or the stylized "w" that was the brand for the Spratling ranch.
In addition to makers' marks such as the Spratling mark, look for a "TAXCO" or "MEXICO" stamp.
Taxco silver jewelry from the city's mid-century heyday is highly collectible and prized by collectors and curators. The subject of steep estate sale bidding wars and museum collections alike, the unique, artisanal designs of Taxco silver jewelry has an enduring appeal.
Jewelry made by Spratling is considered the most collectible and is thus most expensive, but "generic" designs by lesser known jewelers that still has the distinctive Taxco style is affordably priced both in new and resale markets.