Talavera … the word just rolls off the tongue, promising something exotic. In Puebla, Mexico, this elegant, yet earthy, ceramic tile blankets the walls, flows over fountains, and carpets the floors. Tiled church domes shimmer in the sun. From murals and mottos, to angels and addresses, no surface is left unadorned.
Born centuries ago as an artisan tradition, Talavera traces its roots back to the Arab world and Chinese trade routes. It employs a tin-enameling process that was perfected in Talavera de la Reina, Spain, where Europeans knew these vibrant ceramics as majolica or faience. The technique was then transferred to Mexico via monks and craftsmen when Puebla was established. There they found a culture of talented, indigenous people already skilled in working the fine volcanic clay to create practical pottery.
If you have one Talavera tile, it’s beautiful – although very ordinary. But cover an entire building with thousands of these tiles … and it’s extraordinary. That’s what makes everyday life in Puebla exotic.
Talavera Poblana azulejos (tiles from Puebla) celebrate everyday life – from flowers and fowl to signs and senoritas. It’s impossible to turn in any direction in Puebla without seeing Talavera.
The process of creating Talavera tiles requires a combination of brawn and beauty. It takes serious upper body strength to knead the bread-loaf sized cylinders of fresh clay, roll them out pie crust style to the perfect thickness, cut and trim stacks of wet tiles to prepare them for firing … then do it all again and again. If you’re curious, check out this video.
After firing and glazing, then comes the beauty. The artists hand paint each tile individually. The process is complete with the final firing.
So you may be wondering Why don’t they just use machines to make the tiles and paint the designs? Well, “True Talavera” is a special designation – only for the ceramics produced in the state of Puebla. Just like any other product unique to a region (eg. champagne), for ceramics to be labeled as Talavera they must meet stringent standards. They must be:
- Hand rolled or thrown. All pieces are rolled out for tiles or thrown by hand on a potter’s wheel for other items.
- The right colors. Only 6 colors are allowed: yellow, blue, black, green, orange and mauve – all to be made from natural pigments.
Imagining the work it takes to create enough tiles to cover an entire building is mind-blowing. No wonder most of us just paint our walls!
Terri & James