The great pottery centers of the world tend to be located near great quantities of clay. For example, a site in China called Kao-ling is where the world’s porcelain industry began because it is rich in kaolin, the common word for the mineral kaolinite, which happens to be the key compound in fine china. Meissen in Germany, Sevres in France, and Staffordshire in England all became centers for pottery thanks to the abundance of high-quality clay found in those areas.
Similarly, Mexican pottery is usually described by its place of origin—Oaxaca, Puebla, Jalisco, Tlaquepaque, and Ocumicho, to name just a few of the country’s historic ceramics centers. Even the Talavera pottery produced in Puebla gets its name from a place, in this case, the town of Talavera de la Reyna in Spain, where the brightly colored Talavera pottery and tile that so many associate with Mexico was first produced. And those ceramics take their inspiration from the Muslims, who conquered much of Spain in the 8th century and left their imprint on the country’s architecture and decorative arts. These varied and tangled threads can still be seen in Talavera pottery today.
The Mexican state of Oaxaca also produces ceramics with distinctive colors, though the pieces tend to be more monochromatic. The community of San Bartolo Coyotepec is best known for a shiny black ware called barro negro, which gets its hue from local clay and is polished by hand before being fired. Though the technique was developed in the 1950s by a ceramist named Dona Rosa Real, it continues to be the area’s clay calling card. Also in Oaxaca is the town of Santa Maria Atzompa, which is famous for its green-glazed ceramics. While the roots of barro negro go back to the utilitarian pottery produced by Zapotec and Mixtec people who have lived in the area for thousands of years, Atzompa pottery as we know it today has only been around since the Colonial era, when tin-glazed majolica was popular.
Farther north, almost to the U.S.-Mexico border, in the state of Chihuahua, is a type of pottery that is both ancient and new. Known as Mata Ortiz, it’s based on ancient forms and motifs found in pieces of Native American pottery unearthed at a Mogollon site called Paquimé or Casas Grandes. Like the barro negro work of Dona Rosa, Mata Ortiz pottery pieces can be traced to a single artisan, a man named Juan Quezada, who got his inspiration from shards he found while gathering firewood. By the 1970s, Quezada was making polychrome pots based on Paquimé designs, and today some 20 percent of the small town’s residents earn a living making and selling Mata Ortiz pieces.
Other popular Mexican pottery centers include Tlaquepaque and Tonala in Jalisco, and Metepec in the State of Mexico, which is famous for its Tree of Life sculptures. And then there’s the town of Ocumicho in Michoacán. There, in the 1950s, a ceramist named Marcelino Vicente developed a universe of figurines that are at once curious and charming, and are known as diablitos for their frequent resemblance to devils. Today, tourists can buy diablitos-type pieces depicting angels and the last supper, but authentic Vicente diablitos leaned to the obscene.