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The Copper of Santa Clara del Cobre

Written January 14, 2003

Upon first seeing the hand-hammered, copper vessels from Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacán, one's first instinct is to touch…to feel. Every dimple in the lustrous metal is the mark of man, the mark of fire, and the mark of skill.

The history of copper-making in Santa Clara del Cobre is much too long and complicated to be told here, and the latest chapters in this story are dramatically being written today as 36 years of design, support and tutorage suddenly ended when the Coppersmith Guild, 400 strong, marched against the foreign maestro and the apprenticeship school he founded. The guild strike and demonstration took place in June 2002. But that's another story, the ending of which is yet to be played out.

Two excellent books to consult for a complete history of copper arts in Santa Clara del Cobre are Copper, Stone and Fire by James Metcalf & Ana Pellicer published by the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, and Artisans of the Future by Jorge Pellicer, English Edition 1996, Secretaría de Educación Pública.

As one enters this Michoacán mountain village, copper shops abound on every block with the epicenter being the plaza, whose gazebo top is of course made of copper. The European-style brillante, or shiny, polished copper, can be seen glimmering through every doorway. But it is the earthy, raw (unpolished) copper that captures the eye of the collector for its unexpected beauty and unique finish that is warm and unlike metal.
Left to Right: The hammers, the anvil and pounding stand, and the hand-operated bellows of a traditional copper taller.

The copper is purchased in tubes, sheets, and solid blocks depending on the item to be crafted. The flames are coaxed by mighty bellows as the metal is heated to a malleable state. Then the maestro begins the laborious task of hammering with varying sized mallets over an L-shaped anvil for vessels, or on a pounding stand to fashion plates and chargers. The making of a large vessel takes days and thousands of exact hammer blows, and the clink, clink, clink of hammers may be heard throughout Santa Clara every day but Sunday. As the work progresses, the maestro heats and reheats the vessel by dipping with tongs in an always nearby tub of water. The sizzling hiss attests to the extreme heat and dangerous nature of this work. Depending on your age or where you grew up, these are all familiar sights, smells and sounds of the local blacksmith shop.

Some may consider the copper of Santa Clara del Cobre expensive if not extravagant by folk art standards, but copper is a world-traded commodity and the cost of raw materials is fixed annually in January. Each piece is priced first by weight, then by artistry and skill. A finer vessel will have thicker walls of up to a quarter of an inch.

The greatest opportunity to see the best copper arts is in August each year when the Concurso (juried show) is held. The competition is fierce as each artisan strives to show their creativity, technical skills and innovation in hopes of garnering a first place ribbon. The latest trends unveiled are geometric-shaped forms and detailing, heavy animal inspired handles, v-shaped decoration on vessel mouths, and a new, almost black patina on finished pieces.

But on any day, one will discover more copper art than one's mind can absorb in Santa Clara del Cobre, only minutes from Pátzcuaro. Make a point to visit the Museo del Cobre (closed on Mondays) to see some of the best work currently available plus very old pieces putting the progression of the craft into perspective. Your time and appreciation of this laborious art will be enhanced, and your respect for the artisans greatly expanded.

By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO