Jewellery Around the World - Mexico
Our jewellery around the world series not only aims to educate both us and you about the fascinating history of jewellery worldwide, but it helps us garner an understanding of a culture and country that is unlike our own. It is no secret that the writing of history is biased, prioritising a certain worldview and telling of events that sugarcoat the truth, we hope that through this series we can portray an unbiased account of history.
So, this month we have decided to transport you to the tropical paradise of Mexico, a country famous for its delicious food (guacamole anyone?), fascinating indigenous culture, beautiful turquoise oceans, white sandy beaches and of course, margaritas.
When researching this blog, we unearthed some incredible facts about traditional Mexican jewellery. For instance, did you know that Mexico was and continues to be THE place for high-quality Silver jewellery? Let’s find out more about its exhilarating past.
Mexican History in a Nutshell
The history of Mexico is vast and colourful, and in fact, it wasn’t always known as Mexico. First inhabited 13,000 years ago, ancient Mexico was actually known as Mesoamerica, with the name Mexico itself arriving after the Spanish conquest in 1521.
Today Mexico is known for its fascinating hybrid of Indigenous and European culture with the Indigenous roots dating back thousands of years. The country was populated by a mixture of aboriginal tribes including the Toltec, Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya and Aztec with the latter two being the most recognised.
Painting of the Aztecs defending Tenochtitlan, Source - Britannica
These civilisations rose and declined throughout the first few thousand years of documented history, yet they all shared similar traits. For example, they were all significant urban settlements, built prestigious and large monumental structures, divided their society into elites and commoners, were heavily reliant upon agriculture, had a pastoral herding economy and they were vital trade markets throughout Mesoamerica and beyond.
Illustration of the Battle of Tenochtitlan, Source - Britannica
Following a pantheistic and paganistic religion of sorts, these Mesoamerican cultures had a penchant for jaguars and jades (two symbols which trickle into their jewellery motifs). Jade was believed to be a calming life force and jaguars were symbolic of strength, agility and power.
Collectively these tribes were known to have a profound spiritual understanding of the world and universe, with a belief that everything within the cosmos is a manifestation of the supernatural.
Interestingly, Mesoamerica was one of the few countries in America and ancient societies that had harnessed the power of the written word, as many indigenous writing systems were invented.
One of the most well-known periods in Mexican history is the Aztec empire (1325-1521) inhabited by the Mexica people. Known as a military ambitious civilisation, by 1325 the Aztecs had established the largest city in the world, Tenochtitlan.
2006 Photograph of Mexico City's Ancient Aztec Ruins, Eduardo Manchon, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Unlike historic European empires, the Aztec empire was governed by a system of tributes. The Aztec religion was centred around multiple deities, with a belief that to keep these deities and the natural world happy, you had to offer human sacrifices.
Yet, there was a deep veneration for the sun God Huitzilopochtli, and it was believed that the human sacrifices would maintain the Sun’s life-giving force and fight off the end of the world. It is believed that many of those who were sacrificed were captured enemy soldiers, rather than just ordinary Aztec people.
The Aztec empire was also well-known for its prestigious school of philosophy, rivalling the ancient Greek philosophy that we are more acquainted within the West. Aztec philosophy primarily addressed dualism, monism and aesthetics, as well as trying to gain stability and balance within an ephemeral world (a topic that we think is especially important today!). Art was also at the centre of this philosophy too, and was avidly encouraged to better understand both the world they inhabited and the Gods.
Aztec Frog Necklace, Late 15th - Early 16th Century, Source - Wikimedia Commons
In 1521, Mexico became part of the Spanish Empire, which is known in history as Colonial Mexico, but at the time was called New Spain. Interestingly the conquest was successful due to a coalition between Spanish conquerors and Native-Indian allies who fought to capture the current Aztec Emperor Cuauhtemoc. At this time, the Indians were resentful of the power of the Aztec empire, and the fact that they had to pay tribute to them. The siege was four months long.
After this many Spanish persons moved to Mexico, taking up high positions in government with the indigenous cultures being heavily persecuted and relegated to peasant status. In accordance with the Spanish, Mexico became a Roman Catholic country, yet there was still a presence of indigenous culture in Mexico. Historians believe this was due to some indigenous noblemen and the first Franciscan and Dominican friar missionaries learning the indigenous language to evangelise their communities. However, many traditional Aztec symbols and rites were abolished.
The Last Days of Tenochtitlan, William De Leftwich Dodge, c.1899, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Colonial Mexico lasted for 300 years until Mexican independence in 1821. Colonial Mexico was home to the first primary school (1523), the first University (1551) and the first printing press (1524) of the Americas. This syncretism between the indigenous and Spanish culture gave rise to the traditional Mexican cuisine we know and love, tequila, mariachi, jarabe and charros.
Despite this, the Iberian born Spanish who monopolised political power were resented amongst the Mexicans. This is because if you were Spanish and not even born in Mexico, you were seen greater than those who were Mexican born. The fever for Mexican independence started to occur within the early 19 century, and the catalyst for the actual revolt was believed to be Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest dubbed the father of Mexican independence and the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte in Spain.
During the 19th century, after Mexico was granted its independence, it was not as plain sailing as you would hope. From the Mexican American war (1846-48), to the civil war between the liberals and conservatives and the invasion of France in 1862, Mexico did not become a solid republic until the end of the 19th century.
Not to mention in the early 20th century there was the Mexican revolution (1910-1920) which quickly became a radical and violent revolt wanting to strengthen the state and weaken conservative forces. After the revolution, Mexico enjoyed a more peaceful period. In fact, it is believed that Mexico was politically advantageous in the second world war, enjoying a brief period of economic prosperity before and after the war after helping the allies.
Today, Mexico is one of the most sought after regions for backpackers and holidaymakers due its affordability, delicious food, beautiful scenery and fusion of metropolitan city life with authentic rural experiences.
Traditional Mexican Jewellery
Not only does Mexico have a deep past, but its jewellery history is particularly important too. For centuries, Mexicans have honed the ancient skills of goldsmithing, with many individual cities in Mexico being known for their specific styles. For example in Guaraijuato, they are known for their cast Silver colonial style of jewellery and in Patzcuaro, they are known for their Silver fish-shaped necklaces.
Mexico and metalwork have a long history, with many ancient metalwork artefacts unearthed from Aztec and Mayan sites.
Aztec Gold Serpent Labret (A Lip Piercing), c.1300-152, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jewellery was created in offering to the Gods, a totem for their living. In fact, it was this abundance of Gold and Silver that first attracted 15th-century Spanish explorers in the first place. And, in the wake of colonization, the Spanish actually restricted metalwork amongst the indigenous in fear that they would harness their talents to make weapons against the Spanish.
Aztec or Miztec Pair of Gold Eagle Ear Ornaments, 15th-16th Century, Source - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jewellery was popular throughout the colonial period, especially with the emergence of the middle and upper classes. Pearls, Turtle shell and coloured glass were widely used as well as there is an abundance of decorative cigarette and snuff boxes. However, there was a decline in jewellery during the late 19th and early 20th century as the over-zealous production led to the degradation of mines. However, there was a revival in the 20th century, which we will explore further below, as well as other traditional Mexican jewellery including Roman Catholic, Turquoise and Jade.
We couldn’t NOT talk about the history of Mexican jewellery without mentioning the vast impact Mexico has had on silver jewellery and silversmithing. Mexico is not only the world’s number one export of Silver, but it is renowned for offering unparalleled education and artistry in silversmithing.
Taxco is a Mexican city that has gained worldwide prestige for its contribution to Mexico’s Silver legacy, not to mention it is one of the most beautiful and popular places to visit. Between the 16th and 19th century, Taxco was one of the main places that were commercially mined for Silver. In the 1920’s Taxco’s Silver jewellery history was revived by William Spratling, an American architect who moved to Mexico to pursue jewellery making. Spratling was instrumental in the revival of Mexico’s jewellery making industry, making it famous worldwide.
Spratling’s designs were inspired by pre-Columbian and Mesoamerican traditional motifs, and he established a renowned Silversmithing workshop in Taxco called Taller de las Delicias. Spratling’s aesthetic vocabulary made his designs incredibly popular in Mexico as it was believed to be an expression of Mexican nationalism and culture.
Many Mexican silversmiths wanted to work for Spratling because it gave them the freedom to create designs in non-European forms. Spratling’s ingenues have included famous jewellers Antonio Pineda and Héctor Aguilar. Spratling’s influence meant that he was dubbed the “father of Mexican Silver”, and with his contributions to silversmithing being widely praised. During his time and since his death, Taxco has frequented by famous artists including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as being the destination of choice for jewellery enthusiasts and designers. So much so, that there is a national prize called the Hugo Salinas Prize wanting to honour and preserve Mexican’s contribution to jewellery.
Mexican Opals are prized for their colour and intensity, possessing some of the finest glows and Opal confetti ever recorded. Typically, Mexican Opals are known for being a vivid yellow or orange in tone, yet no matter the colour Mexican Opals are considered to be of the highest quality.
We recently had an incredible Mexican Opal brooch pendant in our collection, with three giant white Opals and glittering rose cut Diamonds. Although this beauty is now sold, you can marvel her glorious presence within our sold archive.
Antique Mexican Opal Diamond Brooch, Source - Lillicoco Sold
In fact, Mexican Opals are nicknamed as “fire Opals” because of their inner eternal flame, as well as being born within Mexico’s ancient volcanoes.
Turquoise was widely used in Aztec and Mayan jewellery, fashioned into religious ornaments to honour the Aztec God of Fire Xiuhtechkhtli. In fact, Turquoise beads were also a form of currency. The earliest piece of Mexican Turquoise jewellery is 2000 years old. Turquoise gems were fashioned into masks, necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. The masks were used for rituals and ceremonies, and were often inlaid with complementing mosaics of jade and mother of pearl.
Mexican silver jewellery today widely uses this native material, crafted into both real and mythical animals, discs and balls.
Roman Catholic Jewellery
As Mexico was and still is a Roman Catholic country after colonisation, much of traditional Mexican jewellery is Roman Catholic in origin. Mexican Roman Catholic jewellery is largely western in style, as the Spanish brought across European techniques like filigree, repoussé and smaller faceted gemstones. Yet, some Mexican Roman Catholic pieces still possess an earthy feel. For instance, in Yocatan they create rosaries crafted from red and pink coral.
Although Roman Catholic pieces were widely created in the 16th to the 19th century, jewellery started to become more secularised due to antagonisms towards the church and the desire for Mexican nationalism. That being said, you can still find authentic Mexican Roman Catholic jewellery today.
Like Turquoise jewellery, Mexican Jade jewellery was widely used in ancient pieces. Jade as a material was highly prized in ancient Mexican culture because it was perceived as being a calming life force. The colour of Jade was believed to mirror both water and vegetation, thus it became associated with life and death.
Mayan Jade Head Pendant, 6th-9th Century, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jade was widely used in Mesoamerica for both symbolic and ideological reasons, not to mention it was a rare material to find. For instance, in the Maya tribe, Jade beads were placed in the mouths of the dead and Jade was crafted into sculptures of the Gods, specifically the sun God and the wind God. Jade was also used in a variety of mirror divination practises, a key symbolic practise in Mayan culture.
Body modification was integral to Aztec culture, believed to be part of their ritual and ceremonial practices and signifying important life changes. Archaeological evidence suggests that there was both skeletal modifications as well as piercings and tattoos. Boys and girls had their ears pierced from a young age, and their ear lobes were stretched to have Gold ear spools.
Colombian Gold Ear Spool, 100 B.C - 800 AD, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Although a Colombian Gold Ear Spool, it can be assumed that the Mexicans had Ear Spools of similar style due to their close geographical proximity)
We hope you have enjoyed learning more about Mexican jewellery history! Is it just us, or are you lusting after a holiday in this beautiful country too?