Pottery and Ceramics
Although Mexican pottery tradition is as diverse as the country itself, some varieties stand out. Among the most prized is the so-called Talavera (or Majolica), the best of which is made by a few family-run factories in Puebla. The name Talavera originates from the Spanish town of the same name, from which the tradition migrated to Mexico; before that it originated on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mayorca (thus Majolica) from a combination of still older Arabic, Chinese, and African ceramic styles. Shapes include plates, bowls, jugs, and pitchers, hand-painted and hard-fired in intricate bright yellow, orange, blue, and green floral designs. So few shops make true Talavera these days that other cheaper look-alike grades, made around Guanajuato, are more common, selling for as little as a tenth of the price of the genuine article.
More practical and nearly as prized is hand-painted, high-fired stoneware from Tonalá in Guadalajara’s eastern suburbs. Although made in many shapes and sizes, such stoneware is often available in complete dinner place settings. Decorations are usually in abstract floral and animal designs, hand-painted over a reddish clay base.
From the same tradition come the famous bruñido pottery animals of Tonalá. Round, smooth, and cuddly as ceramic can be, the Tonalá animals—very commonly doves and ducks, but also cats and dogs and sometimes even armadillos, frogs, and snakes—each seem to embody the essence of their species.
Some of the most charming Mexican pottery, made from a ruddy low-fired clay and crafted following pre-Columbian traditions, comes from western Mexico, especially Colima. Charming figurines in timeless human poses—flute-playing musicians, dozing grandmothers, fidgeting babies, loving couples—and animals, especially Colima’s famous playful dogs, decorate the shelves of a sprinkling of shops.
The southern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca are both centers of a vibrant pottery tradition. Humble but very attractive are the unglazed brightly painted animals—cats, ducks, fish, and many others—that folks bring to Puerto Vallarta centers from their family village workshops.
Much more acclaimed are certain types of pottery from the valley surrounding the city of Oaxaca. The village of Atzompa is famous for its tan, green-glazed clay pots, dishes, and bowls. Nearby San Bártolo Coyotepec village has acquired even more renown for its black pottery (barro negro), sold all over the world. Doña Rosa, now deceased, pioneered the crafting of big round pots without using a potter’s wheel. Now made in many more shapes by Doña Rosa’s descendants, the pottery’s exquisite silvery black sheen is produced by the reduction (reduced air) method of firing, which removes oxygen from the clay’s red (ferric) iron oxide, converting it to black ferrous oxide.
Although most latter-day Mexican potters have become aware of the health dangers of lead pigments, some for-sale pottery may still contain lead. The hazard comes from low-fired pottery in which the lead pigments have not been firmly melted into the surface glaze. In such cases, acids in foods such as lemons, vinegar, and tomatoes dissolve the lead pigments, which, when ingested in sufficient quantities, will result in lead poisoning. In general, the hardest, shiniest pottery, which has been twice fired—such as the high-quality Tlaquepaque stoneware used for place settings—is the safest.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Puerto Vallarta, 7th edition