Three Hispanic New Mexico Metal Traditions

Centuries old, this work is welcome in any home today.


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Although the tempering of steel is often credited to the Romans, Celtic-Iberian blacksmiths in Spain had actually refined the process long before them. By the ninth century, Moorish and Spanish smiths working together, had perfected the art of tempering steel blades in the city of Toledo and the city became famous as the finest producer of steel in the world.

Blacksmiths, known in Spanish as herreros, were valued members of Spanish colonizing expeditions to New Mexico. Their most common function was to shoe horses and repair armor, horse gear, firearms, and small tools. As more colonists arrived, blacksmiths turned their attention to providing domestic goods such as tortilla griddles, roasting spits and trivets, iron spoons, ladles, kitchen knives, and scissors. These were followed by door and cabinet hardware: hinges, knobs, and hasps.

The first ornamental ironwork in New Mexico was found in horse gear: stirrups, spurs, and buckles. As more colonists arrived, artistic items for the home began to be produced. Ornate chandeliers, door hasps, fireplace tools, and cabinet hardware were some of the items produced in which the expert craftsman could add artistic touches. Elaborate iron crosses graced the tops of Catholic churches and smaller ones marked the graves of early settlers. Intricately designed iron gates and fences surrounded churchyards.

This magnificent art was produced in simple shops. The typical colonial New Mexican forge consisted of little more than a fire pit with a bellows and an anvil accompanied by a few hammers, pliers, punches, and chisels.

With the arrival of the railroad and machined products from the industrialized parts of the nation in the late nineteenth century, the need for locally forged iron goods declined along with the number of blacksmiths. However, some did remain long enough to pass their skills on to today’s smiths. When Spanish Colonial Arts began to be revived in the mid-twentieth century, demand increased for the hand-crafted ironware that is so integral to its cabinetry and architecture, and today, several expert herreros, such as Tomás Arrey and Rene Zamora continue to work in this proud tradition.

Tin sconce with fabric

Image: © Bonifacio Sandoval
Tin Sconce with fabric, 28" H


The art of tinworking is a classic example of the Hispanic colonists’ resilient efforts to create beauty despite the lack of traditional artistic materials in this remote land. There are historical accounts of tin crosses and boxes in eighteenth century New Mexican churches and reports of tin mirrors in homes; but by and large, tin was a rare commodity that needed to be imported from Mexico, so tinsmiths, or hojalateros as they are called in Spanish, were few in number.

At first the art was primarily created for the church. Early tin items included nichos (niches), often glass-framed boxes, to hold and protect the small bultos (carved wooden saints) so important in early New Mexican religious life; crosses, chandeliers, and candelabras. Tin soon entered into homes as frames for the colorful prints of saints that arrived with the French and Italian priests. It was also used as frames for mirrors which were becoming more common as trade with the U.S. grew.

With the opening of the Santa Fe Trail and arrival of U.S. troops in the mid-nineteenth century, large quantities of food items and other goods, such as lamp oil, were brought to New Mexico in five-gallon tins. In the rest of the country, once emptied of their valuable contents, these tin containers were simply thrown away; but in resource-starved New Mexico they were recycled by tinsmiths into works of art.

The period from 1860 until about 1890 is considered by many to be the golden age of tinwork in New Mexico. Tinworkers crafted tin sconces for candles, chandeliers, and framed mirrors. By the end of the nineteenth century, lamp oil began replacing candles as the primary source of light and demand for much of the tinsmith’s work dramatically declined. For a short period in the early part of the twentieth century, tinwork largely stopped being manufactured at all; but with the revival of Spanish colonial arts in the 1930s and the founding of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, tinworking began a comeback. Because large tin cans disappeared as other cheaper containers emerged, tinsmiths began purchasing rolls of tin, called terneplate. Terneplate is thicker than tin used for canning and it also has a darker color, which matches the aged patina of earlier pieces.

Tools employed in tinwork are simple and inexpensive. A hammer, some small punches, tin shears, a soldering iron and a small workbench are all that is needed. While a punch may be as simple as a nail, many tinworkers make their own, more elaborate ones to create curves and borders. Although the tools are simple, the process is not. A keen understanding of geometry and skill in fine soldering are necessary to produce an octagonal tin and glass nicho. In New Mexico, many descendants of the original revivalists, notably Bonifacio Sandoval, Angelina Delgado Martinez, and the Romero family of Santa Fe, are passing the tradition down to yet another generation.


The fine art of filigree was common among the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Etruria, Greece, and along the Indus river. The fine artistic form we now associate with Spain was likely introduced by the Moors. The Spanish brought the art form to the New World and it flourished in New Mexico. Early filigree artisans in New Mexico were known as plateros or silversmiths, even though almost all of them worked primarily with gold.

If tin was hard to come by in Spanish Colonial New Mexico, gold was exceedingly rare. In filigree, gold is stretched into a fine thin wire that is twisted, braided, and curled and then soldered together in intricate patterns. This allows a little bit of gold to go a very long way in producing exquisite and delicate jewelry. Many of the most common items produced by plateros were pendants, earrings, necklaces, hair pins, chains, and brooches.

Sterling silver filigree pendant necklace

Image: © Kaitlin Gonzales
Sterling silver filigree pendant necklace

Plateros traveled the state selling and taking orders from those who could afford their jewelry. Although few tools are necessary to produce filigree, the fine intricate workmanship required keen vision and a steady hand. Many of New Mexico’s most respected filigree artisans died poor as age and failing eyesight prevented them from continuing in the demanding craft. Today, only a few plateros, such as Luis Mojica, Ralph Sena, and Kaitlin Gonzales, are still active and producing this unique craft in New Mexico.

To learn more about traditional New Mexican metalworking and see examples of the works of master artists, visit the Museum of International Folk Art remoteand the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, on Museum Hill, in Santa Fe. To purchase works by traditional New Mexican metal workers, attend the Spanish Colonial Arts Society’s annual Spanish Market in July or Winter Market in December. More information on the web at remote.

By Claude Stephenson who is the State Folklorist for the State of New Mexico

Originally appeared in The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque – Vol 19

Related Pages

Antique Indian Silver Jewelry article
The Pomegranate in New Spain article

Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts article
Straw Art in New Mexico article

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