Talavera: Puebla’s Exotic Tile Art

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

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

48 thoughts

    1. Yvonne, they don’t exactly cost pennies, but they’re certainly cheaper than buying them in the US. I’m a sucker for colorful ceramics. They’re a serious tourist temptation that I have to resist: inexpensive, colorful, heavy and fragile. ~James

  1. Oh, the beauty of handcrafted gems like these! It saddens me that such craftsmanship, that requires both precision and patience, is (in many places) dying out. Thank you for shining a spotlight on such time-honored exquisiteness.

    1. Amit, I love traveling in countries like Mexico, Spain, Italy, and Portugal because of their long ceramic tradition. In addition to being a wonderful artform, ceramics are the perfect combination beauty and function. ~James

  2. I saw a lot of tiles in Portugal known as azuejelos (sp) blues. Until I watched your video I had no idea how much work went into producing them. I have also watched Delft tiles being made. Fascinating but definitely not cheap.

    1. Anne, the tiles that we saw last year in Portugal were right up there with the Mexican Talavera. The Tile Museum in Lisbon was wonderful, and don’t be surprised if you see a post or two from our museum visit. The folks in this part of the world know and appreciate their tiles. ~James

    1. Curt, it’s always amazing to me how dull and drab the pre-fired glaze is vs. the finished tile colors. I don’t know if that tile-maker was just showing off for the video, but the man’s a rapido automaton. ~James

    1. Anita we buzzed through Lisbon last year and the tile museum there was fabulous. I was a ceramic hobbyist years ago, and consequently, have an appreciation for the artform. One interesting/frustrating thing about ceramics of all types is that the process seems relatively simple, but things can go wrong at any point and totally trash the piece you’re working on. ~James

  3. Sadly, when I visited Puebla I didn’t make it to any of the tile workshops. Thanks so much for posting the fascinating videos of how the tiles are made! Yes, they are truly gorgeous and they would be irresistible if I had a home in which to place them. 🙂

    1. Henry, I’ve always envisioned a small, tile covered courtyard, with a babbling fountain and lots of green plants. I’ve seen many of these in my travels, but somehow have never managed to achieve it in my home. But not having a home – now that’s the perfect excuse. ~James

  4. I love tiles like these and the fact they are hand painted makes them extra special. We see many interesting tiles here in Spain. There is a fabulous Museum of Ceramics in Valencia where many unique tiles are displayed.

    1. Darlene, Valencia has been on our list for some time, and on our last trip to Spain Las Fallas was going on, so we decided to visit later. But, it’s definitely at the top of our list for the next trip, and knowing there’s a ceramics museum makes it even better. These Spaniards know how to do tile that’s for sure. ~James

      1. You would love Valencia! Let us know if you do get there. It’s not too far from us. We may be able to meet for a coffee and a chat.

    1. Many of the Mediterranean cultures have a tile tradtion, which probably goes back to Moorish influence. And when the Spaniards transported it to the Americas they did us all a favor. ~James

  5. The Talavera ceramics are a work of art. When they cover a large area such as a whole building it is just stunning. We are in Spain now and like you and Darlene said they use the colorful tiles a lot in this country also. We will be visiting Valencia soon and we might take a look at the Museum of Ceramics 😄

    1. Gilda, I haven’t seen many Talavera tile covered buildings until Puebla. But these buildings are one of the exceptional things that make the city an interesting destination. I’ve read nothing but good things about Valencia, and we’re looking forward to visiting. In addition to the tile museum, we’ve read that the modern architecture is amazing. Have a great trip there. BTW, where are you in Spain, and are you camping? ~James

  6. Hi James, Thank you for this post and for triggering my memories of Puebla. I especially like the way that talavera is integrated into the baroque architecture there. The facade of Templo San Francisco Acatepec was my favorite example. While in Puebla, we had the opportunity to visit the Taller Uriarte talavera factory. After the eye-opening tour, we purchased a beautiful bowl that is now one of our most cherished treasures. ~Joe

    1. Joe, we really enjoyed Puebla … well except for that minor earthquake. 🙂 It was such a nice break from manic Mexico City and the Talavera tiles all over the place were amazing. I didn’t know of the Templo San Francisco Acatepec and after looking it up, I’m really sorry I missed it. It’s fabulous and truly one-of-a-kind. And one thing I wonder about is how all these fragile tiles used on walls have survived all the tectonic events that have happened in the past decades. Divine intervention perhaps? ~James

    1. Laura, it’s interesting to hear another ceramic hobbyist who had the same pottery problems I did. I took pottery classes for a few years, mostly at a local community college. And one of my biggest problems was who loaded the kiln and where and how my “works of art” got loaded. In my experience, the crappy pieces usually came out fine and the decent ones got damaged – well that’s my excuse anyway. 🙂 ~James

  7. James and Terri – wow, what a process the tile-making is! Then, to notice the quantity of tile on your photos – mind boggling the craft that goes into archetecture 🙂 – Cheers, Susan

    1. Susan, we’ve never been anywhere that had a concentration of tiles in architecture like Puebla. They really were all over the place and it was quite a sight. We visited a couple of workshop/giftshops that were wonderful. We’re hardcore about what we buy and carry, but even we caved in and bought a couple of small pieces. ~James

  8. Wow, such a great post! I can’t wait to get to Puebla someday. It looks so similar to so many beautiful towns in Portugal and southern Spain, which are also covered in tile. Great to know the history and designation of Talavera tile. Thanks for the history lesson, James and Terri! ~Kelly

    1. Thanks Kelly. The next time you pass through Mexico City you really should drop by Puebla. It’s a nice break from wacky MEX and the tile-covered buildings are wonderful. We even got to experience our first, and hopefully last, earthquake while we were there. ~James

  9. Several years ago when we embarked on our archaeological tour through Mexico, Puebla was not on the list. When we had a couple of missteps with the tour, our tour director added it to the list. It was heavenly!

    1. LuAnn, Puebla had been on our list for a while, but somehow getting there never was convenient until our last trip down. It has a different feel than many of the cities in the area, and I’m a bit surprised that it doesn’t get more attention. The historic center is very walkable, which always rates highly on our list. Of course, the earthquake we experienced there will always stick in our memories. ~James

What do you think? We'd love to know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s