Are you the proud owner of any vintage Mexican sterling silver jewelry? Perhaps you are but do not even realize it! I recently purchased a pair of beautiful sterling silver and abalone 1930s or ’40s screwback earrings with something stamped on the back which required a good magnifying glass to read. I did not have one with me, but I bought them anyway because they were so stunning and waited until I got home to decipher the inscription.
Screwbacks, patented in 1894, came before clip backs which were patented in 1934. So I knew these had some history, anyway. I was eager to see what I could find out with a little research…and a much needed magnifying glass.
The Rise and Fall of Mexico’s Silver Industry
Over the past 500 years, Mexico’s silver industry has supplied almost one-third of the world’s silver. It is believed that the Aztecs were the pioneers of silver mining from the Sierra Madre Mountains. After the fall of the Aztec Empire, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes staked a silver mining claim during the early-16th century in Taxco de Alarcón which is located in the state of Guerrero, southwest of Mexico City.
This sparked a major interest in silver and the townspeople began to buy an abundance of it to make jewelry. By the 17th century, their beautiful, handmade sterling silver jewelry had found its way to the high-ranking royals of Spain, England, France, and Germany!
After the Taxco mines became depleted, another silver boom followed during the 18th century when Spanish miner Don Jose de la Borda discovered a rich silver deposit. However, this boom also did not last due to the political upheaval during the 19th century. The Mexican War of Independence from Spain resulted in the silver mining industry being completely shut down.
A revival of the craft of Mexican silver jewelry began in 1931 when William Spratling, an American professor of architecture, had moved to Taxco and decided to re-establish the silver industry. He was the primary designer. By the late 1930s, he had employed over 500 Mexican artisans. Spratling silver was successfully sold in the U.S. through the Montgomery Ward catalog and also at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. He was soon called “the father of Mexican sterling silver.” Taxco quickly acquired a worldwide reputation for having some of the most high quality and visually stunning silver jewelry.
William Spratling, Alabama Polytechnic Institute yearbook, The Glomerata, Vol. XXIV (1921)
Although Mexican silver jewelry can be found in large silversmith communities such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Cuernavaca, Taxco is known as the silver jewelry capital of the world.
Silver Jewelry Stamps
The stamp GUAD on the back of this earring indicates it was made in Guadalajara:Stamps provide important information such as the history, location, quality of the piece, and its maker. The high-quality silver purity mark, 925, was used during the mid-1930s and ’40s. You can see this 925 mark on the back of the earring in the photo above which represents 92.5% pure silver, the minimum standard to be labeled “sterling.”
Collectors have established the term pre-eagle to refer to the silver jewelry made in Mexico before 1948 because an eagle stamp was later used to mark all handmade silver pieces from 1948 until 1980. Mexican jewelry is almost always handmade and often incorporates a variety of traditional materials such as turquoise, coral, moonstone, Mexican amber, and abalone. The earrings I found were definitely traditional!
Well, I guess I have to say I was one of those people who did not even realize I was the proud owner of vintage Mexican sterling silver jewelry. What an extraordinary history I can now see magnified in that incredibly significant little stamp!
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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