Where: Taxco, near Mexico City, Mexico
What’s in store: All kinds of jewellery or household items – from 92 – 98% solid silver
Bag a bargain: At the town’s Saturday market or November’s National Silver Fair
Taxco is situated on steep hillside about hundred miles outside of Mexico City. It is one of the best preserved colonial cities in Mexico, and is popular with visitors who can wander the narrow winding streets and soak up the atmosphere in the picturesque plazas. Not only has Taxco been declared a National Historical Monument, but it’s also widely regarded as the silver capital of the world. There are 6 working mines in the vicinity, and as many as 300 silversmiths sell their wares in shops throughout town. If it’s genuine silver jewellery you’re after, Taxco is the place to visit.
The Spanish were the first to discover and exploit silver in the Taxco area in the 16th century. They rapidly cleaned out the mines and it was 200 years before another rich lode was accidentally uncovered by a Frenchman called Don Jose de la Borda. The story goes that his horse lost its footing as he was riding through the city and unearthed a gleaming seam of silver under a stone. Borda made his fortune prospecting in Taxco, and built the church of Santa Prisca on the site of the first seam he found.
In 1929 an American architect named William Spratling set up a silver workshop in Taxco. Business boomed and before long his associates and apprentices were opening outlets all over town. Original Spalding pieces are very rare these days and are worth a great deal, but Taxco has fostered the talent of thousands of silversmiths, who continue to supply intricate and ornate objects to tourists and collectors.
Where to Bag a Bargain
You’d have a hard time avoiding the silver shops in Taxco – there are several on every street. Ranging from extortionately priced high-end pieces to more modest trinkets for tourists, you’re bound to find the perfect silver souvenir somewhere in town: everything from earrings, necklaces and bracelets to baby rattles, berets and little silver boxes.
The Saturday market is a good place to find low-end silverware and snap up some real bargains.
Every year in late November the best silversmiths from all over Mexico converge on Taxco for the National Silver Fair. It’s a week of craft competitions and workshops, exhibits, competitions dances and frivolity, and it’s well worth timing your visit to co-incide with the festivities.
How to Spot a Good Buy
To ensure that the silver you’ve chosen is genuine, top quality merchandise always check to see whether it bears a government seal. Silver from Taxco is stamped with the silversmith’s initials, his number and the grade of silver used.
Commercial silver is graded 925, which is 92% pure silver and anything less than this is unsatisfactory. Pure silver is too soft to work with and needs to be compounded with at least 2% copper to make it malleable. The highest grade silver you’ll find is 980.
Be aware that different systems of silver classification exist in other areas of Mexico: for example in Guadalajara it might be stamped ‘Mexico Sterling 925’. The government does now insist on some indication of quality to avoid unscrupulous smiths passing off silver plate as the real thing, and falsifying silver is punishable with a prison sentence.
Guide to sightseeing and shopping in the colonial city of Taxco, in English and Spanish.
The Color of Silver : William Spratling, His Life and Art, by Taylor D. Littleton. Louisiana State University Press 2000
Blue Lakes & Silver Cities : The Colonial Arts and Architecture of West Mexico, by Richard D. Perry, Espadana Press 1998
Main Image: Taxco, Laurent Espitallier, Flickr Creative Commons