From Living Animals to a Jaguar Woman

It is often the assumption that all of Mexico’s craftspeople are born into the profession, that is… from families that have been doing one kind of craft or another for generations This is indeed the case for many, but the call to be creative is deep in the Mexican psyche. This and Mexico’s ever-changing economic conditions has brought in unexpected new artisans.

This call has proved irresistible even to those with professional careers. Leticia Mosso Castillo and Arturo de Jesús Vázquez were a wife and husband veterinary team in Mexico City, with a practice specializing in dogs and cats. It was a comfortable life until one of Mexico’s several severe peso devaluations in the late 20th century meant the end of their business by the end of the 1980s. 

By chance, a family member came upon a jewelry worker selling the contents of his workshop and interested in the idea, bought the entire inventory. Making some contacts and working for years, the family worked with the equipment learning the basic processes of shaping raw silver into works of art. Mosso and Vázquez particularly  became hooked, and even though the country’s economic situation improved enough to return to veterinary practice, the two decided to establish the Xolotl (Nahuatl “dog”) jewelry workshop.

The more than 25 years of working silver has resulted in the creation of their unique style. Working almost entirely in silver (with some forays into gold and bronze), they have built up an inventory of unique designs. Like William Spratling long before them, they take most of their inspiration from Mexico’s pre Hispanic past, creating motifs from codices and other images. Some of these are direct reproductions, but the more interesting work takes a single elements and creates a highly detailed version of it.

Their cultural explorations in silver do not stop there. They have also created pieces based off of Art Noveau designs, elements from modern art (the work of Remedios Varos is a favorite) and even designs from other historic cultures such as the Vikings. They also design and create jewelry to order.

Although they are proficient in several metal working techniques, the vast majority of their pieces are cast through the lost wax method, which allows for replication of designs. Their workshop has a “library” of about 3,000 designs, including boxes on boxes of little wax versions of their pieces, waiting to be used to cast the next piece. These range in widths of millimeters to a 5-6 cm disk reproduction of the stone disk depicting the dismembered goddess Coyolxauhqui found at the excavation of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

Although the lost wax method is the least labor intensive method of creating the basic form of the piece, this does not mean that it is easy or fast. Even if cast absolutely perfectly (never a guarantee), there is still much work to do in cleaning up stray bits and polishing (sometimes ageing) to make look like the piece popped out of nowhere.

The beauty of Xolotl pieces are even more astonishing when the workshop and processes are seen. Located in a typical suburban house in Tlalnepantla (just outside of Mexico City), the tools are professional but the kiln, centrifuge and other machines are rustic, to say the least. One, to shake out air bubbles in the plaster cast, is completely jury-rigged, as a professional version costs up to 50,000 pesos. The centrifuge is completely spring-loaded.

The important thing is that it all works together to create fantastic and unique pieces that honor Mexican and human heritage.

All photos by the author or used with permission of Xolotl Workshop