THE SILVER DEALER
In the mountains of northeastern Guerrero, the town of Taxco is as colorful as you could want. Its multistoried houses rise separated from one another by alleyways so narrow that a single car fills them. From across the valley, the town seems to be an imaginary town in a children's book, with all the houses stacked haphazardly atop one another, the whole town a fanciful mingling of walls painted gaudy colors, terra-cotta tile roofs, balconies with wrought iron railings, jungly islands of potted plants, crooked TV antennas, randomly situated shuttered windows, clothes lines strung at all angles, adorned with brightly colored blankets and clothing fluttering in mountain breezes...

Shops selling silver line both sides of Taxco's main highway. For centuries Taxco has been famous for its silver mines, and for the silver objects its local artisans produce. Upslope from the main highway, facing the little plaza known as the Plazuela, I meet Sr. Andrés Rodríguez Méndez, who runs the impressively provided silver shop known as Platería Gloria. Sr. Rodríguez, a very well dressed, polite, educated man, invites me to sit with him at a sidewalk table outside his shop. The table is equipped with an umbrella against the dazzling, high- elevation sunlight; we huddle within the umbrella's soothing shade, and Sr. Rodríguez talks about Taxco silver:

"Nowadays," he begins, "to be sure you have good silver, you need to look for the new government seal. Taxco silver always bears a seal with the silversmith's initials, his number, and the silver's quality. For example, in our business we deal with silver ranging from grade 925, which is regular commercial silver, to the exclusive silver grades of 950, 960, and 970. The highest silver grade we sell here is 980. A classification of 980 means that the product is 98 percent pure silver. Pure silver is 999, but you can't work with that because it's too soft. Silver must be compounded with copper in order for it to keep its shape. Our highest grade, 980, contains only two percent copper, so when you see a rating of 980, you can be sure that that silver won't develop spots; it will stay clean and white."

bracelet of 980 silver"Forty to fifty families supply our business with worked silver. The family who works most with us is the López family, headed by Sr. Manuel López. He has the number 01, so he's Number One in Taxco. Another very famous silversmith who works for us is Tango Aceves. Well, 'Tango' is his nickname because he's a fan of music. So he's TA31, and he works only 970 silver."

"Taxco is the only place using this kind of government mark. If you go to Guadalajara you'll find other marks. In Guadalajara the stamp might say 'Mexico Sterling 925,' and they don't use the silversmith's initials and number. Therefore, if you buy silver jewelry in Cancún, for instance, and you see a silversmith's initials, his number, and the quality-of-silver mark, you know that that silver comes from Taxco. The government developed this system because earlier, for example at Teotihuacan, and at the beaches of Acapulco and Cancún, they were selling 925 silver stamped with just 'Mexico,' so buyers didn't really know what they were getting."

"We've been using this new system since around 1989, I think. Before that, all Mexican silversmiths used an eagle. Back in those days when the tourist realized that what he'd bought wasn't real silver, that gave us all a bad name. Earlier, the penalty for falsifying silver was very light. If the police found someone selling silver plate for pure silver, they'd just demand a small fine. Nowadays, falsifying silver is a crime punishable with imprisonment for several years, so today the problem is seldom encountered. Also, there are ways for a tourist to know whether the silver he's just bought is good. Here in Taxco we have jewelers who can use a special acid to see whether a piece is made of good silver. If it isn't, you can return the merchandise and demand your money back.

"At the moment we have six mines being worked around Taxco, so we're still getting a lot of silver. These mines belong to the federal government. In Mexico, private individuals don't own mines. Miners work for the government. The government deposits the mined silver in banks, the silversmiths buy the silver from the banks, and then we buy the worked silver from the silversmiths."

One place to buy silver jewelry made by artisans in Taxco is at http://www.mexarte.com.