You can’t swing a cat without smacking some guy selling cheap silver jewelry off the end of his hand. Buyer beware: It will turn your skin green before you get it home.
Unfortunately, because Mexico has such fine silver jewelry, the also rans get involved and try to make some money off people who don’t know the difference in quality. Or more accurately, can’t tell the difference on the street as they’re on the stroll. If they looked at all closely, the difference in quality would jump out at them.
The difference between fine silver jewelry and street silver is more than just the quality of the silver, there is also no comparison in the creativity, the design, and the intricacy of that design.
Walk into a fine jewelry store like Talleres Ballesteros in San Jose and you are quickly overwhelmed with the richness of real silver craftsmanship. The two stores in San Jose are a mouthful for Americans to pronounce and to understand. Talleres means workshop in Spanish and Ballesteros is a last name. So, it’s like workshop.
The Ballesteros family’s involvement with silver goes back three generations when they owned silver mines in the town of Taxco, which lies about 100 miles southwest of Mexico City, and which is famous all over the world for its silver.
Mining in Taxco began in the pre-Hispanic period with natives extracting stones for decorative and ritual purposes. The Spanish discovered silver lodes around 1530, which started commercial silver mining in the area.
Creating silver design workshops and exported items, mostly to the United States with its fame for , tourism became a major economic force in Taxco.
Silverwork and silver related tourism are now the mainstay of the economy. Mining is no longer a major employer in the city due to the depletion of reserves and labor problems that shut down the mines.
These days most commercial activity related to silver in the silver capital of Mexico is related to the manufacture and sale of the pieces. Streets in the town are filled with silver shops selling jewelry, silverware, silver serving pieces, and anything you could imagine can be made of silver.
The ancient and very scenic city has been named one of Mexico's Pueblos (Magic Town, like our Todos Santos).
This is the town the Ballesteros family comes from. For three generations, the family mined the ore and created elegant pieces of jewelry formed in silver. They also were caught in the labor unrest and the declining productivity of the mines. So they doubled down on their efforts to create elegant silver pieces and to market them. They already had some of the best local artisans creating for them. Currently their operations support more than 400 families of artisans who have been a part of the company for generations,
The silver market has gone through some tough times since the mines shut down because at about the same time, China started competing, with their cheap labor. But when the silver market went low, the Ballesteros went high, urging their craftsmen to attain an even greater edge in the most intricate, specialized and classic silver pieces. They also benefitted by being both the manufacturer and the retailer, today boasting 15 retail silver shops all over Mexico. They try to open two new stores every year, and San Jose was chosen this year as their target market. Next year they will open their first location in the United States.
Of course this takes extraordinary knowledge of business economics, and especially marketing. The family today is under the guidance of the third generation, which now includes cousins and second cousins and many in-laws. But to get a seat at the table they must demonstrate more than just the last name, they must have a four year college education and have a specialty in some discipline that’s needed. This careful attention to best business practices seems to be what allows them to present such a professional image, extraordinary inventory of silver, and still maintain surprisingly modest prices. For instance, a solid silver bird with remarkable detail, standing about five inches high, is only about a thousand dollars.
Their two stores in San Jose are fun to see, even if you aren’t in the market for silver. But do remember that fine silver work is more than only jewelry, it is home décor items as well, and there are many pieces that make fine gifts.
One of the stores is in the Palmilla Shoppes, KM 27 on the fourlane and the other is in downtown San Jose at the end of the main drag, near City Hall. Website is www.ballesteros.net.