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A classic holiday gift from the Southwest

In any New Mexico home where arts and crafts are collected, you’re bound to find at least a few pieces of Talavera…the brightly colored ceramics from Mexico that are ubiquitous in stores throughout the Southwest. Most gift shops in local up-scale hotels and resorts carry it because it makes a great souvenir or a conversation piece for the folks back home. Despite being produced south of the border, it is immediately recognized as being a part of the American Southwest culture. 

Paul Mahr, the owner of Casa Talavera in Old Town, told us that its popularity is due to the “joyous bright colors, like the houses in Mexico.” Despite its popularity though, a lot of consumers aren’t familiar with the story of its design or history, and many aren’t even aware of its actual name. 

Talavera was spread by conquest. First by the Moors that invaded Spain from North Africa, then later when the Spanish colonized Mexico. In the 16th century, it was brought from the Spanish city of Talavera de la Reina to Puebla, Mexico, where it is still produced today. While it is also produced in several other Mexican locales, only the Talavera that is produced in Puebla is certified and protected by the Mexican government through international trade agreements, similar to tequila that has to be primarily produced in the state of Jalisco to be authentic. Much of the Talavera that is produced in Mexico becomes tile used architecturally to adorn buildings. 

What makes Talavera so striking is the firing of a tin glaze that creates a milky-white surface on which the artist hand paints the colorful patterns. For Mexican Talavera to be considered authentic, it can only be painted in one or more of six colors: black, blue, green, orange, yellow, or mauve, all of which must be made of natural dyes and all of which must be painted onto the piece of tile or pottery by hand. 

Quality Talavera undergoes a lengthy and complex process by skilled artisans, so when you pick up a Talavera coffee cup in a shop and wonder why it’s not so cheap, it’s because the process is a time-consuming effort requiring an expertise that takes years to acquire. Each piece is a unique one-of-a-kind work of art.

Coincidentally, while producing this story, Albuquerque City Lifestyle happened to meet up with Isabelle Collins, an internationally known Talavera artist and lecturer from Puebla, Mexico, who was in ABQ giving a "Meet the Artist" talk at a local shop. An expert on the history and processes of the craft, some of her pieces are on display in the Smithsonian. Her Talavera methods and motifs are steeped in tradition...some dating back to the 14th century. Isabelle even makes her own paint brushes like Talavera artists from centuries ago. Much of her work features cobalt blue coloring which was traditionally used for presentation to Spanish royalty. She is actively involved in preserving the original processes and educating the public about the history of the art form. Her insight was invaluable in writing this article.

When you’re connecting with family and friends this holiday season, Talavera is a welcome and tasteful gift that reflects the ambiance of the American Southwest.

Many thanks to Casa Talavera and Lavender Road for letting us photograph in their shops, both of which are in Old Town ABQ.

  • Mexican artist Isabelle Collins holds a piece of talavera tile from the 17 century.