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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?