Precious Metals


Some history behind one of the pieces found on my last treasure hunt.  Buying cool finds are just the first step.  Taking clues and piecing together the history of unique treasures is the fun part.  I get lucky sometimes and the clues are literally etched on the bottom, like on this warm pumpkin shaped copper pot/vase.  The artist that made this pot is Abdon Punzo Angel and there is a great deal about him and his family as well as the town they live and work from, Santa Clara del Cobre in Michoacan, Mexico.  Aside from the interesting family story, I love how the town kept going after the copper mines were emptied.  The article below tells how they use recycled wire and copper from older pieces to keep their town and craft alive.

This signed copper pot is listed on eBay

Nestled amid pine and oak forests above and beyond Patzcuaro, ten miles distant, along the banks of the Sisipucho River, back in times of yore the Purèpechas established the villages of Churucumeo, Cuirindicho, Andicua, Huitzila, Taboreca and Itziparátzico, plying a metallurgical industry as sophisticated as the Greeks of Homer’s day. Burial grounds have revealed copper objects such as axes, masks, and pincers.

In 1540 a large forge was built to exploit the copper ore, which incidentally didn’t come from the neighborhood but from the nearest copper mines, miles away in the Tierra Caliente. The smelting of ore takes three times as much charcoal as ore, so it’s more economical to transport the ore from the mines to the source of charcoal than the other way around. The nearest copper mines played out about forty-five years ago, and today most of the 10,000 tons of copper which comes into Santa Clara each week arrives in the form of recycled copper wire and cable from electric and telephone companies from here and abroad.

Using the smelting techniques they brought from Europe, the Spanish soon recognized that the native techniques were more efficient,  the locals to continue their work as they’d done in what are now quaintly referred to as pre-Hispanic times. And to this day, the bellows used in Santa Clara remain completely different from European bellows.

There might not have been much market in trading axes and pincers among villages, so Vasco de Quiroga’s group, fomenting commerce in the region, urged the coppersmiths of Santa Clara to make cazos, or cauldrons, giving them the exclusive right on production. Not unlike the vat used by Macbeth’s witches, these cazos can be seen all over Mexico, most frequently filled with the sizzling lard of chicharrones.

It wasn’t long before Santa Clara became the most important copper smelting area in all of New Spain, meeting the swelling demand for cauldrons, stills, casks, church bells, and sending copper to the mint to be stamped into coins.

The town sort of kept going, in the way that the small towns out in the middle of nowhere do, eking out undistinguished existences and ignored by the rest of the country. Mexico’s artistic and intellectual elites paid no attention to Santa Clara. Even the famed 1921 classic work The Popular Arts of Mexico failed to acknowledge the very existence of Santa Clara’s metalwork. Finally in 1946 a group of local artisans, out of concern for their town’s grave situation, organized the first copper fair, which continues to this day, revitalizing the industry through production of decorative pieces such as jugs, vases and centerpieces. The copper fair, which became national in 1971, runs from August 11 to 22.

In this town, the census claims some ten thousand souls (although my best guess would place the count at least twice as high). More than three hundred traditional family tallers (workshops) ply the craft, turning out everything from souvenir-quality to high art. A one-way street leads toward Ario de Rosales. Turn left sometime after passing the old church on the right, and the next block will lead past the town square to the one-way main street, Av. Morelos, where a left turn leads to the heart of Santa Clara’s cultural and shopping district.

The corner of Av. Morelos and Av. Pino Suarez marks the Museo Nacional de Cobre (National Copper Museum), an easy one-stop overview of coppersmithing as well as a display of award-winning pieces. Pino Suarez is where the best shopping can be found. From the Galleria Tiamuri (Pino Suarez No. 110, tel and fax (434) 3-03-21), which offers up the finest designs of Ana Pellicer and the school in jewelry and decorative objects. to Casa Felicitas (Pino Suarez No. 88, tel (434) 304-43, fax (434) 300-43), in which the best displays are found, to Taller El Porton (Pino Suarez No. 69, Tel and fax (434)303-05), where you find the most merchandise at the best prices. El Porton, owned by Juan José Paz Ornejas and Rosa Ibet Glez. Cenedjas, has been in the same family for over a hundred years. At the back of both Casa Felicitas and El Porton are working tallers where the visitor can watch artisans coax a disk of copper into a work of art.

Santa Clara de Cobre used to be one of those towns where the journey exceeded the delight of the destination, but now it’s the hottest spot in the annals of Michoacán artesanía.

This quartet of foreigners left more impact upon the direction of Michoacán arts and crafts than anyone else during the past five hundred years, unifying heritages, creating a stream of commerce, and reinvigorating local economies. Recognizing that the artisan is a vital natural resource, the state of Michoacán just this year enacted the new Ley de Fomento Artesanal (Law for the Promotion of the Craft Industry), broader in scope than any other state’s legislation, raising the artisan’s lot and putting its imprimatur upon Vasco de Quiroga’s dream.

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