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Arts and Craft: Michoacán’s Magical Metal Smiths

Like many other destinations in Michoacán state, Santa Clara del Cobre has a long and colorful history. The Purépecha nation which dominated the region before the Spanish was one of skilled artisans. That their warriors were able to keep the formidable Aztecs at bay was due in part to the metal weapons they forged with materials from area mines.

Few physical remnants of the Purépecha culture remain, and archaeologists aren’t sure for how long before the Spanish invasion this West Coast-nation began forging metal to create cookware, weapons and other tools. It is clear, however, that the Purépecha (AKA the Tarascans) were the most evolved metal smiths in Mesoamerica. Today the local copper mines are depleted, but the laborious art of hand-crafting pots and plates continues. An estimated 60 percent of Santa Clara’s population makes its living either directly or indirectly from the sale of handcrafted copperware.

Old Techniques Prevail

The process from raw material to finished product is long and tedious. And extremely physical. A red-hot fire burns continuously on the shop’s dirt floor, first to melt scrap copper and later to heat the vessels during each step of their transformation. No molds or machines are used in Santa Clara del Cobre’s factories. The one I visited in 2008, Fábrica Felicitas, produced beautiful pieces using the simplest of tools.

Maestro Rafael, who oversees production at the Felicitas workshop, arrives at 4 in the morning to get things going. Ash in tamped firmly into a depression in the dirt, and then layered with charcoal. Copper wire, more charcoal, and pine logs are piled on. The resulting blob of metal is not weighed or measured; with an expert eye, the foreman calculates how much copper he’ll need to make a pot, pitcher, bowl, basin or the town’s signature caso, a casserole dish with two handles. After the raw material has been cut and rendered red hot in the fire, workers pound it flat with sledge hammers.

Might Makes (It) Right

Several hundred times the artisans return the piece to a red-hot fire as they continue to hammer it into shape. Even the pots’ trademark finish is accomplished by martizallos, or hammer strikes. Traditional pieces are hammered but not brightly polished. More modern items are intricately decorated with flowers and butterflies in black matte finish, sterling silver, or oil paints.

It makes me tired just to watch the team wield their enormous sledge hammers, and I can’t help but think of how much more quickly and economically a mass-produced product might be. In Santa Clara, a simple copper sink can take three days to produce. Yet these wares are competitively priced, at least to people who value the unique quality of the plates, platters, pitchers, pots, vases, casserole dishes and even chandeliers that are made here.

Getting the Goods

Several factories will take time out from pounding and polishing the copper to attend to groups escorted by guides. Individuals interested in the art can usually wander to the back of a factory showroom and take a peek, but don’t expect a detailed explanation. The tradesmen will undoubtedly be hard at work.

Even an unguided visit to Santa Clara’s shops helps buyers understand design elements that affect price but are not obvious to untrained eyes. Not all salespeople speak excellent English, but even an explanation in a combination of Spanish, English, and sign language is illuminating. And buyers will find an infinitely greater selection and of course lower prices in this charming colonial town than in shops in Morelia or Mexico City.

A friend just told me he bought two Santa Clara sinks and a copper bathtub on EBay and got a good price. But if you want to see where your objet d’art has been stripped, burned, beaten, and otherwise abused into a thing of great beauty, a thing with a history,--- and the items you need are less monumental---then by all means visit Santa Clara del Cobre. It’s lots more fun than shopping online.


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