William Spratling moved to Mexico in the late 1920s to write travel books and raise hell, just like his old roommate in New Orleans in 1926, William Faulkner. He did both--and even claimed to have invented the margarita. His real legacy, however, was the rebirth of silver-jewelry manufacture in Taxco, south of Mexico City. Spratling wasn't a silversmith, but, inspired by Art Deco and ancient Mexican works, he designed hundreds of sterling silver pieces, some with ebony, pearls, and semiprecious stones. The designs were executed by as many as 400 artisans at Taller Spratling, his Taxco studio. Buyers included the movie stars Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.
Now, Spratling jewelry is enjoying a revival. "It's timeless," says Allen Harrill, director of Nedra Matteucci's Fenn Galleries in Santa Fe, N.M. Thanks in part to her 1990 book, Spratling Silver ($32.50, Chronicle Books), the jewelry has doubled in value in the past three years, says author Sandraline Cederwall of Santa Fe/Arts of the Americas in San Francisco.
ONLY IN AMERICA. Signed pieces usually carry a stylized "WS" stamp along with "980" or "925" (for silver content) or "Taxco." Although you can still find them mixed in with generic Mexican jewelry at antique markets, most are sold in galleries or antique-jewelry stores, including the Treasured Scarab in Denver and Throckmorton Fine Art in New York. Expect to pay $1,000 to $3,000 for necklaces and $500 to $4,000 for brooches. Earrings sell for $300 to $1,000, and bracelets go for $500 to $1,500. Oddly enough, you can't find much Spratling silver in Mexico.
Almost any Spratling piece produced before 1967, when the daredevil designer was killed in a car crash, is valuable. Many collectors prefer earlier works, with their hard edges and pre-Columbian designs that include stylized animals and dramatic geo-metric shapes.
If such authentic pieces are out of your range, Taller Spratling still makes jewelry using old Spratling designs. New items are marked "TS-24" and sell for 25% to 75% of the originals. Another alternative is to look for works by Spratling's contemporaries, some of whom apprenticed in his studios. Bracelets signed "Margot de Taxco" and "Antonio" sell for $200 to $300. Quality unsigned Mexican jewelry from the 1930s and '40s can cost as little as $100.