South of the Border Tile
 
July 1st, 2007

July-August 2007

By Jeffrey Steele

Americans are well acquainted with Mexican sun-and-surf tourist meccas like Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Los Cabos and Ixtapa. But not as many know Puebla, a city steeped in history and cultural treasures and home to a distinctive tile tradition.

Beneath the towering laurel and jacaranda trees of the Zocalo in Puebla’s historic district, tourists and natives stroll past a burbling fountain and antique iron benches on their way to the charming cafes, restaurants and shops lining this central square.

Many will also visit the sprawling Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1649, or one of myriad other ancient churches near the city center. If they pause a moment to view the facades of these and other historic buildings, they will discover they are partly or entirely covered with exquisite Talavera tile for which Puebla is renowned.

The art form known as Talavera, in tile, pottery, sculpture and other hand-made ceramics, has existed for centuries. But today, as Spanish-influenced design and architecture is increasingly embraced in North America, the beauty of Talavera and other Mexican tile is being rediscovered by American designers and dealers. Talavera has even been the subject of exhibits at North American galleries, such as the “Talavera Poblana: Four Centuries of a Mexican Ceramic Tradition” exhibit, which was staged several years ago at New York City’s Americas Society Art Gallery.

Talavera tiles, which originated in the Spanish city of Talavera de la Reina, came to Puebla with Spanish immigrants who followed the 16th Century Spanish conquerors to the New World. Spanish ceramists taught indigenous peoples the dual-firing process that imparts the unique colors and luster to Talavera ceramics.

Puebla became the Mexican capital of Talavera artistry based on both the quality and availability of the clay in and around the city, said John Etchberger, president of Mexico City-based Mexican Connection, which sells tile made exclusively in Mexico.

“Talavera is made by mixing light and dark clay,” he says. “And to this day, the Talavera certified by Consejo Nacionale De Talavera must have clay from the Puebla area. That assures the Talavera is made to the same standards taught by Spaniards.”

The lessons and artistry originally imparted by Spanish ceramists were carried down through families of master craftsmen in Puebla. In the 18th century, workshops producing Talavera evolved into factories, or fabricas, turning out the hand-made tile.

“Today, there are only 12 fabricas that produce Talavera in accordance with those [original] standards, out of the thousands that produce Talavera-style ceramics in Mexico,” Etchberger says. “That’s the top level, and they are very fine. Everything has to be done by hand. The only machinery in a certified Talavera fabrica is an electric motor that turns a huge grinder used to grind mineral rocks to make paints.”

One of the best, if not the best, known fabrica in Puebla is Uriarte, established in 1824. Currently operated by the fifth generation of the Uriarte family to oversee the fabrica, the Uriarte fabrica in Puebla provides tours on a daily basis, Etchberger says. “And sometimes, Senor Uriarte gives the tours himself,” he adds. “He’s 88 years old, and still works every day at the fabrica.”

Specializing in Mexican Tile

Today, there are a number of companies that provide Mexican Talavera to dealers in the United States. One of those is Mexican Connexion, a five-year-old Mexico City-based company. Etchberger reports that at his two Puebla-based fabricas, the process of creating very high-end Talavera tile begins with two different kinds of clay, which are screened and combined to make a clay mixture.

The mix is molded into shapes in large blocks, cut by wire into slices a quarter inch thick, and then spread out in the sun to dry, Etchberger says.

The next step is a first firing, followed by hand painting.

“One interesting aspect of the paint in genuine Talavera is that it features a limited amount of colors, because they have to make their own paint, and it comes from minerals. You have a dark blue, another that’s yellow, one that’s green, another orange, an off-white and a red.”

After the tiles are painted, they are fired again, and this second firing brings out the color and produces the sheen characteristic of Talavera tile. “If you see it before the second firing, you wouldn’t be able to tell what colors will come out,” Etchberger says.

The majority of Talavera in the U.S. derives from areas other than Puebla, he adds. These examples of Talavera have much brighter colors and more vivid designs.

Non-certified Talavera is popular with many in the U.S. because it is priced more affordably than the rare certified counterparts. Etchberger reports he can sell this tile for $45 to $65 a square foot, while Uriarte would command ten times that amount.

Etchberger believes Mexican tile is gaining fans in the U.S. because of the return to popularity of Spanish influences in decoration and design.

“I’ve sold Talavera to virtually every state in the United States, from Maine to Minnesota, Washington and Oregon,” he says. “The heaviest sales go to markets like California, Texas, New Mexico and Florida. I had a builder this morning from Southern California asking for samples, and recently had a builder from Florida asking me for tile to be used over a three-foot arch in a home he’s building.”

Much of the Talavera Etchberger sells is used in kitchens and bathrooms, he says. In kitchens, it is frequently seen as wall tile, in backsplashes and on countertops.

Talavera is also popular on sides of preparation-serving islands away from drawers. In bathrooms, Talavera is favored in shower and tub enclosures, and some designers surround Talavera sinks with Talavera tiles. “People use it in entryways, and use the six-inch tiles in the facers of stair risers,” Etchberger reports. “They are also using Talavera in recreation and family rooms anywhere ceramic tile is used.”

Finally, Talavera can be combined with octagonal Saltillo tiles as accent pieces on the corners of the Saltillo in virtually any room of the house, he says.

San Diego-based Tierra y Fuego is an eight-year-old company that distributes tile from Mexico and Spain, says marketing manager Javier Ibarra. The imperfection of the hand-crafted Talavera tile’s color and texture gives it its unique characteristics. “It’s not perfectly flat, and that makes it appealing as well, compared with most factory-made tile,” he says.

“Most of the background color is an off-white. It’s not matte or gloss, but a semi-gloss finish with natural minerals. Gold, yellow, cobalt blue, green and orange are some of the more prominent colors in the tile.”

This Talavera is hand-crafted in Guanajuato state, using clay acquired from deposits in different parts of Mexico. The tile is hand-pressed and dried for two weeks in the sun, Ibarra says. Once dried, it is fired at low temperatures to give it its strength.

The tile then goes to a finishing process, involving glazing in off-white and decorating with natural pigments on the top. It subsequently goes to another kiln where it’s fired at higher temperatures for about eight hours. When the kiln cools, the tile is removed and hand selected for quality before being packed and shipped.

Most of the sales of Tierra y Fuego tile are in California, where Spanish colonial homes predominate, Ibarra adds. “But it’s also growing popular in Florida, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. And we make a lot of sales on the East Coast.”

San Antonio, Tex.-based Tiles of Luxury is a company that imports a number of hand-made tile lines created in Saltillo, a city in Coahuila state. Prominent are its Antique Terra Cotta and Antique Speckled Terra Cotta lines, as well as another called the Mediterranean. The first two lines are lighter, while the Mediterranean is a darker, chocolate-colored terra cotta, says Tile of Luxury president and founder Ashley Neal.

“The biggest thing about the people in Mexico who make tile is that they are true artists, and there are few of those left,” he says. “This takes people who are patient and very good with their hands. You find that in Italy, in Spain, in France and in Mexico. That’s where you’re going to find the real artists in the flooring industry.”

Tile of Luxury’s product is a true terra cotta created from clay and dried by the sun. “The big difference is we do the texturing process by hand,” Neal says.

“And then we fire it just as was done three or four hundred years ago in a brick kiln that resembles a big brick teepee. We put the tiles in there on the sides of the kiln on different levels, and use wood to burn the tile from the bottom. It’s fired at about 2,100 degrees, and the tiles are kept in there for a week. That’s because it takes two days to get it heated up, and a couple days to cool down. Wood is used to give us the different layers of colors, which include red, yellow, salmon and pink. When you lay the colors out in a room, it’s the combination of all these tile colors together that makes it so distinctive. The tiles look like they’re 200 years old from day one.”

The appearance of antiquity is particularly striking in the speckled terra cotta, because a black dirt mixture is spread into the pores of the tile before it is fired, Neal adds. The effect is of tile that’s been reclaimed from an ancient setting.

Tile of Luxury’s terra cotta tile is used throughout homes in the Southwest U.S., primarily on floors, walls and in backsplashes. The company also produces a coping tile for staircases in all of the textures of its antique lines. The coping tile is expressly designed to wrap around from the front of a stair riser to the left or right, Neal says.

“You can also do courtyards with it,” he adds. “But you don’t want to put any terra cotta tile out in the cold in a climate that goes down well below freezing. The ice would eventually crack the tile if enough weight was sitting on it.”

Unfortunately, Saltillo’s tile-making operations have been hurt in recent years by Mexican tile made in Monterrey but identified as Saltillo tile by big box retailers selling building materials, Neal says.

“It’s not a true terra cotta, not made in Saltillo, and not hand-made,” he observes, noting the misidentified tile is drawing sales away from Saltillo’s artisans, while simultaneously jeopardizing their reputations for craftsmanship.

While Tile of Luxury doesn’t make Talavera, the company does sell a textured Talavera tile line called Alhambra, which Neal reports is used in fountains and some pool areas, as well as within the home. The company’s most popular Talavera is called Tequila Sunrise. “It’s been a huge seller for us,” Neal says. “It’s got cobalt blue, bright yellow, green and terra cotta red, and is a decorative field tile.”

Sources:

John Etchberger, president

Mexican Connexion, Mexico City

626-737-1714

www.mexicanconnexion.com

Javier Ibarra, marketing manager

Tierra Y Fuego, San Diego

619-710-8885

www.tierrayfuego.com

Ashley Neal, president and founder

Tiles of Luxury, San Antonio, TX

210-273-4280

www.tileofluxury.com

Honorato Ramirez, public relations manager

Alonso Luis Designs, Puebla

ventas@alonsoluis.pue.mx.com

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