The Secrets of High End Pottery

Have you ever seen a beautiful piece of pottery, thought “that would look great on my mantel”, then counted yourself fortunate you weren’t holding it when you saw the price? Fainting is not a strong strategy when carrying a pricey breakable.

There’s a reason these pieces are so expensive.

A lot of time and labor goes into crafting each individual piece, each a work of art. I was a witness to some of this while visiting the Uriarte Talavera factory in Puebla, Mexico. I learned from my co-travelers that Talavera is a famous brand, but being ignorant of pottery art I had not heard of it, even if I’d seen “examples” of the style.

I mean, Uriarte Talavera has only been around for about 200 years. Its methods are based on the Spanish Majolica tile technique, arising when artisans from Talavera de la Reina in Spain came to work on the first church in Puebla back in the 1500s. The factory still uses many original techniques and ingredients. UNESCO has even declared it a duel “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” for Spain and Mexico.

Casa Uriarte has the designation of origin (DO4-1), as it is the first certified Talavera pottery producer in the world. This certification was obtained in 1992 because Uriarte and a group of six workshops using the original methods and materials sought the protection of authentic Talavera pottery, to counteract the accelerated emergence of numerous imitations. Currently, only nine shops are fully certified. See the Wiki page for a more detailed history.

You’d think that with a legacy like this, Talavera would have shown up on my radar.

Let’s walk through the old-timey process, shall we?

Steps in the process

There are many steps: clay acquisition, molding, first firing, initial glaze, stenciling, detail glaze, and second firing. Because there are so many steps, with varying clay mixes, humidity, potters, painters, and finishers; with each of many hands having good days and bad, no two pieces are identical.

Clay preparation – black and “white” clays, combined. These clays are from volcanic soils found in different parts of the Puebla area, washed, and filtered to acquire the finer sediments. All with the goal of acquiring your finer sentiments.

The next step is the stereotypical view of a pottery studio, where an artisan works on a pottery wheel or hand sculpts a figure. The piece is then set to air dry for 30 days.

A master potter at work. Ghost not included.
Detail work. Evening out the base and getting consistent edges.

The figures can be tiles, plates, containers, animal figures, suns – whatever inspires the artist or is a specialty of the studio. While the original Majolica technique is typically a blue pattern on a white background (which in turn was inspired by Chinese pottery), Talavera is often bright and multicolored.

At this point, there should be little residual water waiting to steam up and explode when they bake it, so they do the first firing at 850 degrees Celsius, (1562 Fahrenheit) for 12 hours. This sets the base ceramic.

A retired kiln.

The piece, which was brown going in, comes out orange after firing. The staff will check for cracks, bubbles and thickness by tapping on various parts of the piece and listening for the right tone. Ping is good, clunk is bad. Next, they sand the piece smooth.

They’ll moisten areas of the piece likely to pick up excess glaze on dipping. The goal is to get an even coat on the dip.

Dipping the piece

The base glaze is yellow when wet, and the mix must be continually stirred. The enamel glaze is a mixture of silica sand, tin, and lead.

After immersion, the glaze dries at room temp for 12 to 48 hours, turning from yellow to white.

Drying the base enamel glaze

The next step is to touch up the glazing. Add more where needed, and trim where it is too thick.

The DO4 certification calls for the piece to be signed with the logo of the manufacturer, the initials of the artist, and the location of the manufacturer in Puebla. Uriarte adds a lot number and year manufactured.

The Uriarte factory goes back to 1824, and is the oldest Talavera shop in Mexico. Note the base rim is unglazed.

I’m not 100% clear on the stenciling process. I believe they create and store designs digitally and print as needed.

Then the stencil is perforated and they use the perforated holes as guides for pencils or a graphite rub.

Perforated stencil. Imagine poking all those holes…

Some shops, if they’re not intent on mass producing a design, may simply hand draw an outline on a piece, much the same way an oil painter might rough out a design in pencil on canvas before applying paint. Personally, I couldn’t even make paint-by-number look good the one time I tried it. I can only imagine what it would look like if I attempted an “artistic” pattern, on top of mangling the clay molding step…

Now the artistry becomes even more pronounced. Each detail on each piece is hand-painted with a colored glaze. They limit the glazes to cobalt blue and fine blue, yellow, black, green, and orange, and derive the glazes only from natural minerals – no artificial dyes. The artists use handmade, mule hair brushes.

How steady is your hand?

You can still see dots from the stencil, but they’ll be covered by the second firing.

Large, complex pieces can take a while…

The second firing is also 12 hours, but is hotter at 1050 Celsius (1922 Fahrenheit.) The colored glazes will sit slightly higher than the base glaze giving an embossed feel, and will melt/run a slight amount giving soft edges to the details.

At any point in this extensive process, defects can creep in. Some are correctable, and the process itself has corrective steps built in. But some defects cannot be fixed and they destroy and discard the pieces’ shards, regardless of how much work has gone into it.

Here’s a (not particularly well lit) video from Uriarte that nicely illustrates the process.

So do you still wonder why high-end Talavera is expensive? Can you imagine what it would cost, with all those man-hours, if it were made in the USA?

39 thoughts on “The Secrets of High End Pottery

  1. It’s beautiful and very appealing. I love the piece in your final shot. I think the art and science of glazes is interesting too – – I know that you can get radically different colors from the same glaze mixture, depending on how much oxygen is present, but since I have a very tenuous knowledge of chemistry, it’s all magic and alchemy to me. I was surprised to read they still use lead in the mixture, but I guess the upscale European glassmakers still use lead in their crystal, too.

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    1. I never studied chemistry, so my knowledge is less than tenuous. It’s cool though, that the color they paint on isn’t necessarily the color that comes out of the kiln. I think I read, for the dinnerware pieces at least, that the certification requires regular inspections to ensure the lead content is below a certain percentage. In any case, some of those pieces are pretty impressive.

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  2. There are a lot of Talvera knock-offs around here, and it’s all quite popular. The designs and colors clearly appeal to Hispanics; one of our best grocery chains always has some for sale, and it goes quickly. One of my favorite installations is a three-tier fountain that looks much like the plate in your last photo, but of course it’s not the real thing. I did have a chance once to see a piece of authentic Talavera next to a knock-off, and the difference was obvious.

    I’ve done a bit of pottery collecting over the years — mostly Ohio Valley American, 1850-1920 — and some of the same techniques were used, like the stenciling. Once decals began to be used, another industry was born. There were companies who did nothing but create the stencils for companies like Homer Laughlin and Knowles to use on their dinnerware.

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    1. As I’d forgotten the prices I saw when we were at the factory (apart from being high), I did a web search. One result was melmac “talavera” plates. Cheap, needless to say. My wife has bought some pottery here and there. (No Talavera, yet.) My favorite piece has it’s designs derived from feathers that had been placed on it before the firing, so their outline is burned in.

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  3. Fortunately for our bank account, we never visited there. Alie would have found a way to add a piece – although only a small one – to her collection. Finally, however, it was not the cost that put an end to her buying small pots everywhere we went. It was the lack of space to display them.
    We switched to Christmas ornaments: they remind us of our visits when we put them up and when we take them down, and the rest of the year, they don’t have to be dusted.

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    1. It was a good trip, with more posts to come. Although by the time I’m done folks will likely be tired of pyramids and history…

      We didn’t spend a lot of time in Puebla (or almost anywhere really), so there are things we could have spent more time on. One problem with guided tours is they’ll often feature city tours where a guide spews facts and figures which are instantly forgotten, and drive past places you’d like to stop and spend a couple hours. As such, the stop at the pottery factory was more interesting than most of the city sights. For what it’s worth, the Cinco de Mayo post was also based in Puebla.

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    1. There are certainly more steps, and more time to it than I would have guessed before the tour. I don’t think the workers are all that highly paid either. So either there’s a lot of man hours involved, or someone on the marketing side is getting rich.

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    1. They had a gallery at the end of the tour that had some pretty impressive work, but I had to limit myself both due to lack of time and difficulty getting good angles in a limited space shared with other tourists. This sample seems to be a popular one.

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  4. That’s quite the process, but all that hard work pays off: the pottery is beautiful! I love the intricate detail and the bold colors. Not enough to shell out an arm and a leg, mind you, but it’s nice to look at!

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  5. Excellent coverage of the history and process Dave. I am not knowledgeable about pottery at all. We do have a few pieces (flower vases) that a former neighbor did in her basement studio but compared to these they are simple and straightforward in design and creation. Our everyday dinner dishes are to some degree similar in that they, Polish Pottery, are hand done by artists. But they are much more affordable, especially when buying their seconds at a clearance shop. I doubt very much that Uriarte Talavera has seconds store that would dilute their value.

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  6. The Steps in the process photo is beautiful on its own, but then after reading and understanding why makes this photo even more pleasing 🙂 And the artistry and creativity needed to produce such pieces is admirable ~ and like you, I’d be all thumbs at any of these steps of creativity 🙂 What is surprising is that they destroy and discard the pieces’ shards… so much work, but it is kind of admirable in their goal of producing truly beautiful pieces of art. Great post, Dave and I wish to one day visit this area myself. I hope you’re well down in Portland 🙂

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  7. What a painstaking process… but well worth the effort and the price! Makes it all the more impressive knowing the blood, sweat and tears that must be put into it. Hard to imagine that sort of patience and time invested in anything in this day and age… 🥴

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    1. Well, these are descendants of folks who built massive pyramids without metal tools, powered equipment, or even draft animals. And they’re the relatives of folks who come to America to do jobs that Americans don’t want to do, often because it’s hard, uncomfortable labor. They may think it’s a cushy, indoor, skilled labor position.

      For what it’s worth, my old profession, designing and building computer applications, also took a lot of time, considerable patience, and a mentality that the end product needed to have no flaws. (But I’m sure it paid a lot better…)

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      1. Love the way you brought the concepts together from the pyramid builders to the masters of pottery and on to your computer work… yes, it’s good to know there are still dedicated artisans at work despite an age seemingly taken over by plastic from China… 🥴

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  8. My wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Uriarte Talavera when we were in Puebla in May 2018. Your wonderful collection of photos brings back some very nice memories of our tour. We were so inspired that we purchased an intricately painted bowl and a charming Christmas ornament. You are right about the prices, but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet. We are very pleased with our purchases, because they remind us of our time in the beautiful city of Puebla.

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    1. Cool that you’ve been there. It’s always fun to share memories, especially for places that are not on everyones “been there, done that” list. I hope your bowl has a place of honor in your home decor.

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