A Brief Look Into the Life and Legacy of William Spratling
It’s no secret that for almost a hundred years, modern day Taxco, Mexico has become a hub for unique and traditional handmade Mexican silver jewelry. But how did it become famous for this?
A large part of it has been attributed to William Spratling, an architect, writer, and artist turned jewelry designer who moved to Taxco in the late 1920’s. Spratling was inspired by designs from the Pre-Columbian-era and worked with local Taxco jewelry makers to create his beautiful jewelry designs. Because of this, he is known as “El Padre de la Plata de México,” or the “Father of Mexican silver.”
Read on to learn more about William Spratling’s life, inspiration, and the legacy he left on Mexican jewelry.
Early life and career
William Spratling was born in New York in 1900, but spent most of his childhood years in the city of Auburn, Alabama, where his father was from. Spratling attended college at Auburn University, where he studied architecture.
After graduating from Auburn University, Spratling went on to become an instructor in the architecture department there. In 1919, he accepted a position as an architecture professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. At one point during his time in Louisiana, Spratling shared a house with William Faulkner, who he would later go on to publish a piece of writing with in 1926.
The move to Mexico
Spratling moved to Mexico in 1927 after landing a job teaching colonial architecture at National University of Mexico’s summer school. He taught there in the summers of 1927 and 1928, where he became active in the art scene and befriended artist Diego Rivera. In fact, Spratling helped organize an exhibition of Rivera’s art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He used the commission he made from this event to buy a home in Taxco, Mexico, moving there permanently in 1929.
History of silver in Taxco
For thousands of years before Spratling’s arrival in Taxco, the city had been known for its abundant silver mines. Let’s quickly review the history there before continuing with Spratling’s later impact.
In Pre-Columbian Mexico, ancient civilizations who settled in what is modern day Taxco took advantage of the silver they found there to make gifts for their gods, as well as jewelry. The city of Taxco was established in 1520 after the arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, a move he made mostly due to its abundance of silver.
Spratling’s silver resurgence
William Spratling is credited with reinvigorating the silver industry in Taxco beginning in 1931, which at the time didn’t have a large silverworking industry. Inspired by the bold and vibrant designs found in art, jewelry, statues, and murals from the Pre-Columbian era, Spratling began designing silver jewelry, artwork, tea sets, and tableware that incorporated traditional design elements from this era.
As his silverwork became more successful, he befriended local artists in the Taxco community and taught them how to make his designs. He opened his first workshop, Calle Las Delicias, in Taxco in 1933 and ran a successful apprenticeship program that led to many local artists to open up shops on their own.
Spratling’s growing success in the business of silver jewelry was tested during World War II. At this time, department stores in the United States couldn’t import goods from Europe, causing the demand for luxury goods from Mexico to sharply increase. Spratling started to sell jewelry wholesale, employing more than 500 artists from his workshop to meet the jewelry demand.
But Spratling’s company was bought out by a shareholder and eventually in 1945, his business went bankrupt, causing Spratling to close down his workshop.
Alaska Native Arts project
Following the closure of his workshop, two of Spratling’s friends and government officials in Alaska asked him to replicate his success in Taxco with native Alaskan art. Spratling studied native Alaskan art, and proposed a plan to create workshops and cultural centers all throughout Alaska. These workshops and the art that would come from it would include traditional iconography, motifs, and techniques common throughout the region.
In the late 1940’s, 7 Alaskan men were sent to Taxco to learn Spratling’s silversmithing technique. Spratling made nearly 200 different prototypes to inspire the newly trained men when they started work at their workshops.
The project was scrapped soon after due to lack of funding.
Workshop reopening and later life
In 1952, Spratling opened a new workshop at his ranch, Taxco el Viejo. There, he started producing silver jewelry and decorations at a larger scale again. His studies of native Alaskan art shone through as a clear influence.
Spratling released published writing throughout much of his adult life, and also collected a large number of Pre-Columbian figurines. These figurines have since been donated to museums throughout Mexico.
William Spratling died in an automobile accident near Taxco in 1967. He was 66 years old.
William Spratling’s influence on Mexican jewelry
Since his death in 1967, Spratling’s legacy has lived on in Taxco and beyond. His influence, dedication to traditional Mexican design, and love of community earned him his nickname of “The Father of Mexican Silver.”
On top of the Pre-Columbian motifs that so heavily influenced Spratling’s work, design themes also included simple rope borders, simple strap designs, discs, and balls. Plants and animals were commonly featured in his jewelry as well.
In his later work, Spratling created what is today known as a “croissant necklace.” This style of necklace features graceful, fluid silverwork that form loose spirals in the shape of a stretched out croissant. He also began incorporating different materials into his jewelry, including Pre-Columbian gemstones and gold.
Take home a piece of Mexico’s history
At Mexican Silver Store, we offer a selection of jewelry inspired by the work of William Spratling and handmade by local artists right here in Taxco, Mexico. These selections offer a look into the style, motifs, and technique Spratling became so well known for.
Take a look at some of our favorite items below!
Mexican Sterling Silver & Rosewood Beaded Necklace
Taxco Mexican Sterling Silver Contoured Heavy Bracelet
Sun & Moon Necklace