The Centuries-Old Art of Making Talavera Pottery
Since its introduction by Spanish settlers in the 16th century, talavera pottery has become synonymous with Puebla. The beautifully hand-crafted ceramics, which take the form of everything from garden tiles to dinnerware, adorn building fronts in the historic center, replace china sets in Mexican households, and travel home with visitors as souvenirs. Talavera is so revered that President Calderón ordered a special bicentennial pattern last year for his Independence Day state dinner; Governor Rafael Moreno Valle buys centerpieces to give as personal gifts; and collectors worldwide seek out new and historical pieces to display as fine art.
The local tradition of making talavera started shortly after the city of Puebla was founded in 1531. “The Spanish feverishly began building churches, monasteries, and convents,” notes MexOnline.com. “To decorate these buildings, craftsman from Talavera de la Reina … were commissioned to come to the New World to produce fine tiles as well as other ceramic ware. In addition, these same craftsman were to teach the indigenous artisans their technique of Majolica pottery, in order to increase production levels.”
Nearly 500 years later, artisans continue to produce talavera in Puebla. In fact, the capital city is home to the longest continuously operating factory in Mexico and perhaps the world: Uriarte Talavera. Uriarte is one of the oldest businesses in the country, ranking in the top 10 behind José Cuervo’s tequila distillery in Jalisco and several other well-known enterprises.
Located in Puebla’s historic city center, Uriarte Talavera has been turning out handcrafted pottery since 1824. The factory is one of seven or so certified producers in the region; its competitors include Talavera de la Reyna, Ansar Talavera, and La Concepción. Certified ceramics — which bear the mark “DO4” on the bottom — are made from a 50-50 mix of black and white clays from the Sierra Negra. They must include only mineral-based paints, have a glaze that contains a minimum amount of lead, and meet various other government standards. “Lead makes it shine,” co-owner Michael Paulhus explained during a recent visit. “Mexican authorities are stricter than their U.S. counterparts, so our lead content is below the FDA rules for food service.” (Paulhus, for the record, is Canadian; the four other partners in the business are poblanos.)
The entire process is labor- and time-intensive. Depending on its size, a single piece of talavera takes weeks, if not months, to produce. The clay is shaped, dried, fired, glazed, hand-painted, and fired again before it’s finished — and then nearly a third of the pottery produced gets smashed because it doesn’t meet quality standards, Paulhus says.
Although Uriarte Talavera dabbles in new shapes and original designs — look for Mayan-themed items in 2012 — some of its licensed patterns date to 1724. Back in the day, talavera from Puebla became highly sought-after as a symbol of prestige in part due to its signature blue decoration. The vivid paint color is derived from cobalt, which comes from Africa and for a long time was difficult to acquire. “Now there’s FedEx,” Paulhus noted, “but before it came over on a ship.” About 80 percent of Uriarte’s work is made to order, but visitors can shop for sets and one-offs at the company store on-site, on its website, and in selected boutiques.
The Uriarte Talavera factory and store is located at 4 Poniente #911 in Puebla’s historic center. Tours are offered Monday through Friday, 10am to 2pm (one per hour), in English and Spanish.