Tuesday, November 08, 2022

All the glitters is not silver


2022 is the golden anniversary of El Rancho de las Golondrinas (our volunteer gig) as a living museum. The ranch itself is over 300 years old. And they are celebrating with “50 Events for 50 Years.” Some of these will be festivals that are part of the normal schedule – Spring & Fiber, Herb & Lavender, Wine, Viva México!, de los Niños (Children’s Party) and Harvest; plus Renaissance Faire and Spirits of New Mexico Past. Others will be “special events,” such as a “50th Anniversary Walk/Run,” are yet t/b/d. We have the advantage of being a mostly outdoor venue, but still we all were hoping the “post pandemic” world allows all/most of this to happen.

The real action started on the 1st of June, but on the opening day of March we kicked off the behind-the-scenes part of volunteer season with our first official activity of the year – assembling the Tinworking Kits for Kids. Tinsmithing, along with weaving and adobe-brick making, are three of the hands-on-history activities the museum offers our guests. Marsha enjoys being docent at the “demo loom” in the weaving area where both adults and children can get an intro lesson on a two-treadle, “walking” machine. Jim sometimes oversees the making of small adobe bricks, which after baking in the sun are used to construct replica buildings during September’s Fiesta de los Niños. Kind of like mud Legos.

The Tinmaking Kits for Kids are utilized at local libraries to spread the word about this unique and historic art form. Each paper bag contains English and Spanish instructions, string to be used as a necklace, a nail and most importantly a Tin Cap Roof Disk onto which is glued a paper stencil indicating the places into which the small metal spike is to be punched. Among the designs are a heart, a swallow (“la golondrina”) and a Zia Sun (our state symbol.) The disks, normally used to help hold down roofing or foam board insulation, are purchased at our local Tru-Value.

Not having our 21st century retail system New Mexico’s mid 19th century Hispano tinsmiths (“hojalateros”) got their metal from discarded five-gallon tin cans of lard, oysters, kerosene, etc, which began arriving in the territory at that time. And came up with their design ideas from architecture or their inventive imaginations. They adapted their leather-working punches to decorate the surface of the tin – stamping it from the front or embossing it from the back. The most common early patterns were rosettes, birds, scrolls, leaves, swags, triangular pediments and half-round arched lunettes.

The Spanish smithing tradition goes back to the 2nd century CE – but with silver, not tin. And always in service to those with the wealth and power. During the Colonial period the Catholic Church was the primary patron of the art – commissioning silver altars, candlesticks, lamps, statues, retables (frames enclosing decorated panels or revered objects) and other religious items. On the secular side Queen Isabella paid for a silver-overlaid-in-gold jewelry case, crown, scepter and mirror. Plus more. Silversmiths accompanied the 16th century Conquistadors in their vanquishment of the New World

(Colonial Silver Tabernacle Door)


Mexico is rich with natural metal deposits. And archeologists have discovered incredibly intricate vessels and ornamentation made of silver and other metals dating from pre-contact MesoAmerica. Nonetheless the precious shiny grayish-white metal was not a particularly prized by the Indigenous People. Tin on the other hand was a big deal. It was extracted with considerable labor and fashioned into personal decorative ornaments, as well as the functional pieces of currency that were used by Indigenous groups in the region. (Interestingly Spain would later set up a mint in Mexico City to produce the silver coins used throughout the Spanish Empire.)

In 14th century Spain, tin emerged as a valued commodity used to coat heavy metals, adding strength and a tarnish-resistant finish. When the Spanish established New Spain in the 1500s they introduced this use of tin to the area.

Locally mined tin became an ingredient in making copper armaments – and its remnants were left as recycled scraps. Thus, like the lard and oyster tins in New Mexico 300 years later, this cheap and available metal become a THE medium of expression for Mexican artists creating objects such as masks, mirrors, milagros and ex-votos. Milagros (“miracles”) are small amulets offered as thanks to a saint, often attached to a saintly image in a church. The shape of the milagro is based on the problem it is intended to solve. It might be an animal, a person or a part of the body. Some take the form of vegetables or pieces of fruit. An ear of corn might be used to request a good harvest. Ex-votos, (“for a vow”) are paintings done as testaments of thanks to a Saint – and portray scenarios of assistance through divine intercession with a written section that describes the miracle including names of mediators, petitioners, persons in distress, locations, and dates. They often are painted on tinplated metal. Photos of our Milagro Tree and one of our ex-votos are attached.


That all changed in 1522 when explorer Hernán Cortéz found silver in Taxco, Mexico. Hoping to buy him off Aztec ruler Moctezuma II presented him with a disk of gold and one of silver. Cortéz, who like most of the conquistadors self-funded his trip, heard “cha-ching, cha-ching!” When he still didn’t leave, Moctezuma laid a trap for him in Tenochtitlán. Cortéz, however, took Moctezuma prisoner – and the New World Spanish silver saga was off-and-running.

The Spanish brought new methods of silversmithing with them. And while other forms of metalwork in Mexico were subject to harsh restrictions from the mother country – both to protect the interests of metal guilds in Spain, and to prevent the creation of weapons in the wake of the Aztec conquest – silverworking was the exception. Silver from Mexico became an important trade commodity with Asia in the 16th century. Mexican silver guilds steadily gained power and influence and by the 17th century Mexico was known all over the world as the home of fine silverwork – with a distinct look unique to the region.

All of which begs the questions (1) Why in the 21st century is Santa Fe Spanish Market replete with artistic tinwork, and very little silver, while the Santa Fe Indian Market is bursting with aesthetically pleasing silver creations, but no tin. (2) why in the mid 19th century were New Mexico Hispano craftsmen creating works of art with cast-off tin food containers while at the same time the Navajo Natives who lived just up the street were creating decorative jewelry made of silver?

Although some of the silversmiths (“plateros”) moved north, the tsunami of Mexican silver making did not accompany them into the colony of New Mexico. The supply of raw silver was just not there. Nor was there demand ­– either within the territory, which was struggling to get itself going, or in external markets that were being serviced more than adequately by the Mexican Guilds. The metalworkers kept their skills in shape doing crafting with the small amount of tin that was available. And in 1853 one of these plateros, Cassilio, taught the craft to Astidi Sani ­– generally recognized as the first Navajo silversmith.

As a display of their wealth and an advertisement for their metalworking prowess Mexican plateros typically adorned themselves with silver – concha belts, buckles, shirt buttons, spangles on the sides of pants, hat bands, silver embellished saddles and headstalls (the part of the bridal that fits around a horse’s head.) Crafts dealer John Lawrence Hubbell opened his first trading post at Ganado, Arizona in 1873 selling Navajo blankets, pottery and leather work as well as goods from south of the border. When plateros came to offer their wares to Hubbell, the Navajo took notice – and began to trade horses and livestock to the silversmiths in exchange for learning their metal-working skills. To kickstart the learning process Hubbard brought in two Mexican silversmiths to teach their skills to the Navajo with whom he did business. The early Native silversmiths chose to use their own leather stamping tools for their designs, distinguishing their work from that of the Mexicans. Soon Navajo silversmiths began to develop unique designs and styles which continue to evolve today. And Pueblo tribes such as Zuni and Hopi also took up the craft.

Meanwhile back in the tinwork world – milagros did not appear in New Mexico until they recently were brought north by Mexican immigrants. Similarly the only ex votos we have seen or heard of are from the rural parts of Mexico.

Tinwork developed in NewMexico as the materials – the metal itself plus glass and printed religious images – became available to the craftsmen. There are accounts of a small number of tin crosses and boxes in 18th century New Mexican churches and tin mirrors in homes, so at least a few tinsmiths (“hojalateros”) were actively plying their trade. Most of this early work was unsigned. The tin began arriving shortly after General Stephen Kearney’s American Army of the West marched into Santa Fe in 1846 and declared New Mexico a territory of the United States. This opened up trade along the Santa Fe Trail that brought such items as the aforementioned five-gallon tin cans of lard, oysters, kerosene – plus window glass and wallpaper to New Mexico.

At about the same time the French-born prelate Jean Baptiste Lamy was appointed head of the territory’s Catholic Church. Lamy recruited young French priests to be in charge of the mostly vacant parishes, and encouraged them to replace the old devotional images in the churches with modern prints and plaster statues. And, like Queen Isabella on a smaller scale, he commissioned the chomping-at-the bit former silversmiths to make religious objects from the now basically cost-free silver-colored metal. The priests came with lithographs of the saints and small devotional cards printed with religious images – items that when combined with a glass covering and decorative frames or holders made of skillfully smithed tin became reasonable replications of the silver retables seen back in Spanish churches. (Proving all that glitters is not silver.) As in Colonial Spain the art, it soon began appearing in the adobe haciendas of the New Mexican ricamente (wealthy.)

Less expensive items from the east/midwest began arriving by train however. Pre-framed pictures replaced custom-made decorative frames. Electric lights and coal-oil lamps took the place of tin candle sconces. By 1915 most of the 19th century tinsmiths had stopped working. But shortly thereafter an influx of artists and tourists interested in the revival of Pueblo style architecture and decoration began coming to Santa Fe. Their demand for light fixtures, wastepaper baskets, tissue holders, and other handmade objects in the old styles brought about a revival of tinsmithing in the state. And over time decorative tinwork made its way to the walls of everyday New Mexicans – an audience that their silver counterparts would have been priced out of. Good news for folk-art lovers and the New Mexico tinsmithing community.

And for El Rancho de las Golondrinas. Otherwise our Metalworking Kits for Kids would be more expensive to make than Moctezuma’s gift to Cortéz that started this whole megillah 500 years ago.

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