William Spratling (1900 – 1967) Most experts agree that if it were not for William Spratling’s presence in Mexico, specifically Taxco and its environs, it would have taken much longer for Mexican silver to achieve its international success.
Born in New York State, when Spratling was in his early teens, shortly after his mother and sister died, he and his father moved to Auburn, Alabama. William graduated from Auburn High School and Auburn University (then known as the Alabama Polytechic Institute). He majored in architecture and was offered and accepted teaching positions first at Auburn, then, in 1922, with Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
While teaching at Tulane, he also participated in the Arts and Crafts Club there and taught in the New Orleans Art School. During the summers of 1926-1928, Spratling lectured at the National University of Mexico’s Summer School.
During his eight years teaching at Tulane, Spratling’s literary ambitions brought him in contact with many southern literary lions of the day including Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and others. So it is no surprise that Spratling made many friends in the literary, political and artistic worlds of Mexico.
One of these was Dwight Morrow then serving as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Spratling had moved to Mexico in 1929 to write his book, “Little Mexico.” With money Spratling received for aiding his friend, Diego Rivera get the commission to paint frescoes in the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca, Spratling bought a house in the Calle de las Delicias in Taxco.
When Morrow suggested to Spratling that, despite sending tons of Taxco silver to the “old world …for centuries … none…. was utilized to create an industry or economy for Taxco…,” it kindled an idea.
Spratling opened his first shop, Aduana in 1931. Among the first of the shops offerings were tin ware, copper, weavings,furniture, and to a lesser extent, silver pieces all designed by Spratling. By 1933, silver jewelry and objects designed by Spratling became the shop’s specialties.
Early designs derived from pre-Columbian motifs and also inspired by simple ranch life. The designs included applied circular discs, balls, straps, and rope designs. Spratling used native rosewood, gold, copper, bronze (brass), and occasionally, abalone combined with silver. These became the new definition of Mexican silver design.
In 1935, Spratling’s thriving business required that he and the artisans working with him move to a larger shop that he named, “Taller de las Delicias.” The growing tourist trade helped spread the desirability of Spratling’s designs for both his jewelry and hollow ware. By 1941, he had 120 employees and sold silver in Mexico and also in the U.S. to Neiman-Marcus, Bonwit Teller, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
As his design work matured, Spratling added indigenous amethyst and turquoise to complement his silver designs. In the early 1940’s, he also used chalcedony, coral, obsidian and occasionally, tortoise shell. These designs were strong, handsomely executed and were slightly more stylized than his earlier pieces though he continued to incorporate real and mythical animal depictions in jewelry and hollow ware.
As Spratling’s creations grew in popularity, so did his need to recruit local artisans as his assistants. New silversmiths were trained in an apprentice system that Spratling established early on. Promising artisans worked under maestros. Most of these later opened their own shops and those who became successful attributed it to the training they received in Spratling’s Las Delicias workshop. Among them were Antonio Pineda, the Castillo family, and Héctor Aguilar.
The Las Delicias years began the early period of Taxco’s silver industry that significantly altered the city’s artistic and economic history. Spratling also attracted the highly respected goldsmith Artemio Navarrete to instruct apprentices in the art of shaping precious metals. In the early years most pieces were based on Aztec sculptures, Mixteca-Puebla codices, and random clay seals from Spratling’s own collected works.
In 1938, Spratling established “Spratling y Artesanos, S.A.” Spratling acted as supportive patron to his trainees and encouraged those students who established their own workshops as the Taxco silver industry grew. In 1939, Antonio Castillo established Los Castillo and Héctor Aguilar his Taller Border that also employed young, talented artists who reached deeper into their people’s unique past for inspiration. In 1940, Ana Brilanti founded her workshop, Victoria, which initiated the combined metals method.
Also in1940, Spratling began providing some of his designs to the Silson Company who fabricated the designs in silver plate or other non-sterling material. The contract with Silson continued for five years and all its pieces carry a hallmark containing Spratling’s familiar printed “WS” surrounded by the smaller words “Spratling of Mexico Silson, Inc.”
During the Second World War, United States department stores could no longer obtain luxury merchandise from European sources and many had little choice but to buy jewelry and silver objects from Taxco. Consequently, almost all silvermithing workshops there expanded to meet the increased demand. Las Delicias was no exception.
Spratling was advised to sell part of his company to outside investors to raise money for expansion. Spratling followed this advice but along with the money came a new set of managers and advisors. In 1945, as the war ended, the money dried up. This, combined with the involvement of new investors, caused Spratling to resign from the company and, shortly thereafter, the company dissolved.
After his resignation, Spratling moved to a ranch in Taxco-el-Viejo. For the next several years, Spratling designed no silver except for a small group that he agreed to provide to Spratling y Artesanos during the fall of 1945.
Over the years, the U.S. Department of the Interior tried to entice Spratling into creating a format to train Alaskan students to design and fabricate silver jewelry utilizing objects and sculpture native to that region. Spratling’s plan was eventually accepted and he created 200 models for the project. Seven Alaskan students flew to Spratling’s ranch in 1949, where for several months, each was trained in the methods that had proven so successful in Mexico.
The students returned to Alaska but a lack of subsequent government support brought the project to an end. Spratling’s contribution to the project required that he spend a lot of time in Alaska as he researched the Alaskan and North West Coast heritage. As a result, he came away with new ideas that dramatically influenced his later designs.
In 1949, Spratling joined the Mexico City silver company, Conquistador and insisted that his designs be executed by his maestros in Taxco. This began the maturity of the silver industry.
The work he’d done in Alaska with different materials and tools now influenced his technique as he focused on “expression of movement in the abstract” with line, spiral, arrow, and circle as main subjects depicting native Mexican and Alaskan art styles.
The first evidence of this new dimension in Spratling’s designs appear in pieces marked “Spratling de Mexico” that were produced at both the Conquistador factory in Mexico City and at Spratling’s ranch during 1949 and 1950.
The arrangement with Conquistador ended in 1951 as Spratling decided to begin contracting with his old maestros including friends, Antonio Castillo, Héctor Aguilar, and Antonia Pineda.
Subsequent Spratling designs carry on the more stylized, streamlined, refined line. The use of shallow, flowing, incised lines, and ebony, azurite, tortoise shell, yellow jasper, rosewood and malachite enhance the reflections, shadows and planes of the silver.
Spratling expanded his artistry further by combining silver, gold, shell, and other various precious stones in the hundreds of designs he created in the last fifteen years of his life. Throughout Spratling’s career, he created custom work for clients.
Experts advise and warn that while William Spratling pieces are highly collectible, they are also copied and faked. Spratling himself acknowledged this when he observed that his work was being copied and displayed in the shops of Taxco within one month of his introduction of a new design. Today, not all pieces hallmarked “Spratling” are genuine.
With all its attendant desirability, replication, heritage, and acolytes, it is no wonder that William Spratling is called, “The Father of Mexican Silver.” Spratling’s life came to an untimely end when he was killed in a 1967 car accident.
His is a legacy for all Mexicans because of his dedication to the promotion of silver especially within the city of Taxco. Many of Spratling’s designs reside in the Taxco Silver Museum as well as the Spratling Museum of Taxco.
Spratling’s inspiration is known to have continued the creative exploration and expansion of the Mexican and, specifically, Taxco’s silver industry that now houses over 5,000 shops and dozens of distinguished jewelers.
Some of the distinguished silversmiths who emerged after Spratling’s death include Emilia Castillo, daughter of Antonio Castillo, Teresa Camino, who provides jewelry to companies in Mexico and America while working with a group of expert silversmiths in Taxco, and Jason Creagh and Violante Ulrich who work extensively with silver in Italy and Taxco mixing elements of both cultures.