What visitor to Mexico can return without purchasing at least one piece of silver jewelry? These accessories, so very chic at this moment in fashion-conscious circles, have always exerted a special magic. Mexico is rich in natural deposits of silver, and the trade of silver was the origin of seaport towns such as Puerto Vallarta well before its modern heyday as a resort. Hopes of plunder of its precious deposits of gems, silver, and gold lured Europeans throughout Mexico in colonial times, and led to the melding of Christian images on jewelry with the characteristics of ancient gods indigenous to the native peoples. In Mexico even today, the decoration of the body with metalwork (and also, of churches and dwellings) carries some of the psychological richness of religious and naturalistic forms imbued with age-old ritual, protective, or celebratory value.
A lively interest in humble Mexican folk artistry developed in the United States as early as the l920's--along with an appreciation for emerging Mexican artists, such as the mural painters Diego Riviera and Jose Orosco, who were then working on an urbane and international level. Mexican silver jewelry, with its impressive craftsmanship, imagination, and exoticism, offered North Americans an opportunity to purchase on a small scale an authentic work of art that shared its roots with major movements in contemporary intellectual tastes. Within Mexico, artist colonies arose which produced enormously influential silver jewelry from the 1930's through the 1950’s. The names associated with this movement--William Spratling and Margot de Taxco among many others--are revered by collectors today; glossy books document their jewelry masterpieces. The aesthetic of the 1960's and 1970's brought its own influences to Mexican silver, which continues to be made and sold today in extraordinary quantity.
Today's buyer may wish to do a bit of personal research before the actual trip to Mexico. North Americans will discover large amounts of contemporary Mexican silver jewelry at the local mall wherever nice silver is displayed; although not necessarily advertised as such, many rings, earrings, pins, necklaces, and bracelets now being sold--especially those with abalone, turquoise, or semiprecious stone inlays--were imported from Mexico. Older pieces often find their way to vintage, antique, and collectible stores; these pieces tend to have a more complicated, heavier look. A price tag of ten to fifty dollars usually accompanies these items whether old or new. For those at home in cyberspace, a review of eBay offerings can provide hours of enlightenment regarding both typical styles and typical prices; search on "vintage Mexican silver" or "sterling" or "Taxco" (a city known for its silver), or a combination of these terms.
The markings inside silver jewelry bedevil the earnest student, as they are often "stamped" in some motif although illegibly so. Many pieces are helpfully labeled "sterling;" others--especially older pieces--dubbed "silver" or "Mexico silver." Often the international system of grading silver, such as 925 or 800 to indicate the degree of purity, has been employed. In addition, some pieces state, "Hecho in Mexico" or "Taxco" (i.e. manufactured in these places). Very often a symbol or initials, or some combination of these elements is also stamped into the metal--rendering it "signed" by the artist or his studio. Many fine pieces however are unmarked altogether or marked in such a way that it is hard to make out what is there.
Although silver itself is not exceedingly expensive, tin or base metal washed with silver or various other substitutions are much cheaper and Mexican jewelry is often made of these materials. "Alpaca" is a Spanish term frequently stamped on jewelry indicating a durable, brilliant white metal (similar to so-called German silver or nickel silver), which indeed contains no actual silver at all. Many of these jewelry pieces are worked with the same care and artistic charm as examples made from silver, however, so the buyer need not scorn them altogether although the price should be considerably lower.
The initial asking price for Mexican jewelry may be immobile in a commercialized establishment such as a department store or elegant boutique; in flea markets, tiny stalls, or on the street the price tends to be a more fluid entity, subject to sudden precipitous falls as the shopper expresses doubt or begins to walk away without making a purchase. There is a fine art to bargaining in Mexico, and a wily and experienced buyer may sometimes consummate a deal at a figure one half or even one-fourth the amount announced at the beginning. The tourist should bear in mind however that whether or not there is eventual agreement on the price, the maintenance of polite and gracious dignity is an extremely important feature of Mexican social interaction. A rushed, demanding, and impersonal style of communication among strangers (which North Americans recognize as bad manners but tolerate as commonplace in our own culture) may be experienced by Latin Americans as astonishingly and shockingly insulting. In addition, the tourist should remain aware that a few dollars more or less in the end probably will make very little difference to his own well being, whereas these same few dollars may represent a major portion of the seller's income that day.