When I was a kid, I would visit my grandparents in El Paso, Texas, every summer. One of the things I most looked forward to during these visits was crossing the Rio Grande and visiting the markets of Juárez, Mexico. Of all the sights and sounds within the bustling markets, the colorful pottery stalls stood out to me. Even now, when I go back to El Paso, I make time to browse the pottery shops scattered throughout the city. As a part of our celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, I want to take a closer look at Talavera pottery and the laws that protect and regulate its creation in Mexico.
Talavera pottery originated in Spain. From the 11th century through 1492, Muslims from northern Africa, commonly referred to at the time as Moors, spread the techniques and designs of Islamic lustreware pottery as they inhabited various regions of the Iberian peninsula. During the 16th century, in the Spanish city of Talavera de la Reina, artisans combined Islamic pottery methods with Flemish glazing techniques and painting styles from the low countries and Italy and began to produce its namesake pottery in large amounts for use all over Spain, Europe, and the Americas.
Before the Spanish colonized Mexico, indigenous cultures already had their own pottery traditions, which did not involve potter’s wheels or glazing. While it is unclear exactly how the Spanish brought Talavera pottery to Mexico, one popular theory is that monks, who wanted to decorate the churches being built in the new colonial cities, commissioned skilled workers from Talavera de la Reina to teach the local artisans how to make the tiles and other products they desired. The town of Puebla, created in 1531, a little over 10 years after the Spanish began their conquest of Mexico, became a major hub for Talavera pottery and continues to be one of the only places where one can still find craftsmen using techniques dating back to the 16th century. Initially, Talavera works from Puebla, known as Talavera poblana, used only cobalt blue and white glazes, as a nod to the Chinese pottery that was traded around the world, and which also influenced Delft pottery.
The process of making Talavera ceramics has not changed since the 1500s. One site describes it as follows:
“[a]n elaborate process is involved in making a piece of Talavera pottery. First, comes the selection of the clay, which is chosen from the area of Puebla and nearby vicinities. The clay found in this region is known for its fine quality. After a detailed process of washing and soaking the clay, it is then hand-formed or shaped on a potter’s wheel into its desired form. Next, it is allowed to dry in the sun for a matter of days, after which it is fired at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A test is performed at this point, making sure there are no cracks in the object. This is followed by an initial glazing process after which the hand-painted design is applied. This stage differs in length, dependent upon the intricacy of the design work involved. A final firing is performed. Before being offered for sell, a certification process is next on the agenda. This is to ensure that the piece meets regulations and the level of excellence in craftsmanship has been achieved. It is at this time, provided all conditions have been met, that the piece is stamped with the maker’s mark along with a registration number.”
Today, Talavera pottery in Mexico is regulated by the Consejo Regulador de la Talavera. This council was created by the Official Mexican STANDARD NOM-132-SCFI-1998, Talavera-Specifications, which was passed in 1998. Workshops must receive certification from this council in order to use the name Talavera for their pieces, though many shops sell items purporting to be Talavera without certification. Only a handful of workshops have received certification so the concern over fake Talavera products is legitimate. Talavera pottery is also protected by a designation of origin, which “protects the artisanal ceramics that are manufactured by tradition in the region that includes the Municipality of San Pablo del Monte, in the South of the State of Tlaxcala, the Judicial districts of Atlixco, Puebla, Cholula and Tecali de Herrera, of the State of Puebla.” Protected designations of origin are generally used for foodstuffs and wines to “establish intellectual property rights for certain products whose qualities are specifically linked to the production area”; however, in this case, due to the clay and methods used to create Talavera pottery, it also qualifies for a designation of origin.
In 2019, the Talavera pottery processes of Mexico and Spain were added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. You might wonder how pottery, which is very tangible, can make it onto a list of intangible cultural heritage. But what UNESCO is focusing on is not the pottery itself, but the skills and craftmanship that go into making the pottery. Depending on how complicated its design is, a single piece of Talavera pottery can take three to six months to complete. The traditional process of mixing the clay involves stomping on it, which seems like a full-body workout to me. The limited range of colors (cobalt blue, yellow, orange, green, mauve, and black) are made from natural minerals. One piece of pottery may need to be made by both a potter, who brings its form to life, and a painter, who gives it its distinct look since these are two very distinct skills.
As a child, I was enchanted by Talavera pottery, with its bright colors and intricate designs. Now that I have learned a bit about the process of making Talavera ceramics, I am even more impressed.
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