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William Spratling
William Spratling
Father of Mexico’s Silver Jewelry Industry
by Lou Christine

The same as it is with its northern neighbor, various people have migrated to Mexico since Hernan Cortez and his conquistadors first set foot on these shores. The human influx continues. Some came for adventure and riches, others in search of a new beginning, or to pursue a dream, while some felt compelled to spread what they thought to be the Lord’s will. Yet only a few have left a lasting imprint. William Spratling was such a man and his legacy lives on.

Today Spratling designs, either those employed for practical purposes or his stunning examples of stylized jewelry, continue to be appreciated, holding onto to their original luster. Spratling’s aboriginal and pre-Columbian copied creations are recognized and admired worldwide. On top of that, he single handedly forged an industry by transforming a sleepy Guererro village into a hotbed of commercial success. He’s responsible for what has evolved into a couple of generations of schooled and successful silversmiths. William Spratling is rightly referred to as the father of Mexico’s sterling-silver-jewelry industry.

His communication skills had him motivating peasants, in reality, rescuing them from the drudgery of the mines. The bottom line is that Spratling offered indigenous people opportunity to attain wealth and fame beyond their wildest dreams.

Original Spratling show pieces, like his famous Jaguar tea sets, are stunning examples of the man’s imaginative mind. Fantastic representations are on hand in museums, private collections and proudly displayed in upscale galleries around the globe. Voicing, "it’s a Spratling” are buzzwords indicating exquisite quality.

Born in 1900 in New York State Spratling was raised in Auburn, Alabama becoming a trained architect and draftsman at Auburn University. During the mid-nineteen twenties he taught at Tulane, in New Orleans. There he shared a home with William Faulkner, who would go on to become Nobel Prize-winning author. He lent his illustrations to Faulkner’s books and they both collaborated and co-published “Sherwood Anderson And Other Famous Creoles” during the same time period. With a thirst for the bohemian lifestyle Spratling drifted down to Mexico from time-to-time, emigrating permanently in 1929.

He set up his base of operation in the midst of silver mine country, in Taxco, in the State of Guererro, where the raw product was vastly mined, but shipped out to someplace else as fast as the mineral came out of the earth.

The young illustrator became enchanted with Mesomerican motifs. With vast resources close-by, Spratling began drafting and arranging patterns, creating necklaces, bracelets and other sterling-laden jewelry. Whether it be depictions of ancient masks or belt buckles, he flashed diversity, proving he was far from a one-trick pony. He went on to fashion practical items such as coffee-and-tea sets, salt-and-pepper shakers, hair-braids, flatware and a plethora of other beautiful, useful items. Art Deco designs of that era and aboriginal lines enhanced one another in his work.

He quickly aligned himself with the likes of hallmark Mexican painters Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and David Siqueiros. He rubbed elbows and broke bread with the intellectuals of the day. When certain political forces had the communist David Siqueiros on the run for his political affiliations the muralist hid out at Spratling’s Rancho El Viejo just outside Taxco. Soviet filmmaker Sergeri Eisenstein was a pal.

His legacy was growing in various areas north and south of the border. Spratling, through his U.S. government connections, was personally responsible for the very first Mexican art exhibit entering the United States.

In no time his small tiende in Taxco was flourishing, chock with young Mexican students eager to learn skills and hone their craft in silversmithing. Almost from scratch the artist, architect, dreamer, shrewd businessman and good neighbor created a burgeoning industry.

With the support and curiosity of the ever-so hip and wealthy north of the border his strikingly clean designs enchanted a trendy clientele. With a lower cost than gold, Spratling’s silver designs also gleamed and their precision stood out.

Spratling’s silversmiths went through rigorous apprenticeships. No detail was overlooked. The famous too were flocking to Taxco to buy and admire, as the old town evolved into some silver-jewelry Mecca and then gained the nickname “the Florence of Mexico.” Today it is said there might be as many as 10,000 silver outlets, with just about everyone of them stemming from the man who spoke slowly with a southerner’s drawl.

Eccentric and somewhat of an enigma, Spratling set up a utopia at his ranch. Overtly generous, he entertained the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, Errol Flynn, Lyndon Johnson, Betty Davis, Marylyn Monroe, Orson Wells, Cantinflas and even Ethiopian emperor, Haile Sallase. Many became collectors.

Yet with or despite such brilliance, it’s been written that Spratling at times became extremely odious with both guests and associates alike. Without warning he might eject a ranch guest, without south-of-the-border resources who may have over extended their stay or made some gauche faux pas. At Rancho El Viejo he often acted mercurially.

Despite such shortcomings, many Mexican families today reap the benefits because they were handed down the craft from Spratling, due to the man’s personal instructions and sharing nature. Icons of the Mexican silver industry like the Castillo Brothers, Mondragon, Bustamante and Pyneda owe their continued success to Spratling.

What Stirling Dickinson was to San Miguel, William Spratling was to Taxco, and maybe more so. Both San Miguel and Taxco are the only two towns in the country deemed by the Mexican government as National Treasures.

Yet despite the glory and appeal, for Spratling personally it was a roller coaster ride. In some circles he was admired and affectionately referred to as Don Guillermo, however, keeping as many as 700 silversmiths at one time happy under one roof proved difficult. As rapid as his stock rose, jealousy and underhandedness crept in. Some were out to get him. There were strong accusations about him being a pedophile. Others pegged him as an outrageous opportunist and overtly flamboyant. Books were written, some full of accolades, others noted how he could be cranky, didactic and pedantic.

He spread his creative wings by further employing goldsmiths from Iguala just south of Taxco to produce pieces made of gold. His sketches for wood and masonry products are rich in authentic pre-Columbian detail. He unearthed ancient artifacts from archeological tells, more for the joy of discovery and inspiration than reproduction. Personally unearthing ancient relics from Mesoamerican cultures, he handed them over to museums, the guardians of Mexico’s past. Spratling was one of the largest donators of this kind.

Violante Ulrich, today’s co-owner of the old Spratling ranch south of Taxco speaks of stories heard from her father, Alberto Ulrich, Spratling’s friend, who in his later years would expound about Spratling. “We’d be having coffee out at the ranch. Dump trucks would pull up full of loose dirt, then dumping their loads to the side of the house. Spratling seemed to forget everything and would sprint toward the piles that just returned from the tells and start digging ferociously with his bare hands to perhaps unearth idols that often were buried inside those piles.”

Spratling ventured off to Alaska in 1951, taking advantage of a program in conjunction with the U.S. government, bringing a number of native Alaskans to Taxco to align and incorporate their Aleut designs with those of central Mexico’s aborigines. The ambitious plan that included importing additional native Alaskans, never really panned out. Yet some of those Alaskan designers remained in Taxco and they too left their mark.

Spratling went from millionaire to bust-out more times than you can yell “ay carumba.” Having been a millionaire, flushed with false pride, he often felt obliged to pick up tabs or accommodate guests. The wealthy, the famous and non-famous all became part of those who sponged off him even when he was down and out.

In Spratling’s view perception was everything. He became a vivacious and virtual front man with almost empty pockets. Yet down deep Spratling was an eternal optimist. Each time he was counted out, somehow he would rebound.

There are said to be 520 original designs. He was often and is still, knocked off. Frauds have shown up stamped with the Spratling trademark. When discovering his designs were being pirated, quick as a flash, he’d change his company’s logo having to stay one step ahead of the counterfeiters.

In August 1967, as he had for almost 40 years, Spratling was motoring at high speeds through the Guererro countryside in his sleek Ford Mustang convertible. Spratling drove like he lived. He hadn’t an inkling that just around the hairpin curve, a large tree had fallen across the road. He was killed instantly. Ironically, once again he was on the precipice of bankruptcy but just happened to have a bailout check in his wallet he had recently received from a new investor and was on his way to the bank to settle outstanding accounts.

His friend Alberto Ulrich, the German-Italian industrialist, more of a fan and friend than a silver enthusiast, came to the rescue. He bought the Spratling ranch and acquired his designs. Today Ulrich’s daughters live at the ranch and continue the legacy, including a restaurant. One left over living relic is Don Tomas Vega, one of the few Spratling-trained silversmiths who still is employed at the ranch works.

Today in places like Santa Fe, San Francisco, New York and Texas silver collectors and jewelry enthusiasts alike revere Spratling silver.

At the Yam Gallery (Instituto Allende) exhibit personal items and keepsakes that Spratling himself utilized are on display. Items such as his personal phone book having the home phone numbers of Orson Wells and Marilyn Monroe can be read. Funny enough, the number for David Siqueiros in Spratling’s phone book is still current. If you were to call it today, the Siqueiros museum would answer.

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Lou Christine is a local author who has lived in San Miguel for over 20 years.
This story was originally published in 2001.

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