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Puebla or Tonala? Mexican Majolica

by Susana Kirchberg

The message on our answering machine was confusing-- something about
a hot tip on a rare piece of Tonala pottery. No phone but they did
leave an address. I've learned that these types of calls often lead
to some interesting finds. Ringing up our photographer, we headed out
to investigate.

Standing about three feet in height, the beautiful tin-glazed water
filter is signed on the bottom with the initials "R.L." Deep shades
of blue, green, yellow and rust jump out from the creamy white
background. There is no doubt the filter is an older piece, but is it
Tonala pottery as its owner assures us, or is it Majolica from Puebla?

Puebla is known as the capital producer of Mexican Majolica, a name
that originally referred to a porous pottery created on the island of
Mallorca, Spain. The name has since come to designate any similar
type of ceramic. Also commonly know as Talavera, this style of
earthenware was introduced to Mexico during the 16th century from

As we examine the piece, snapping shots of it from various angles,
the owner hovers nearby. His asking price for this fine example of
Mexican ceramic is $15,000 pesos (nearly $2,000 dollars).

From the texture and look of the glaze it is obvious that this water
filter was fired at a high temperature. If the piece is indeed from
Puebla, two types of clay would have been used, black and a light
whitish-pink colored clay. After having been cleaned of pebbles and
plant matter, the two clays would have been mixed together and then
submerged in a tank of water to ferment. The quality and plasticity
of the clay improves the longer it is left soaking.

Be the piece from Puebla or Tonala, the basic glazing processes would
have been similar. Once the item had been created using a potters
wheel, it would be left to air dry for several days and then fired
for ten to twelve hours. Pieces which cracked during the first firing
would be discarded, those passing inspection would be set aside for

A small crowd begins forming in the front yard as our ace cameraman
squints through the lens, glancing occasionally at the sky to check
the lighting. A friendly debate begins, "Tonala, ha! It is clearly
from Puebla." "No. You're crazy, look at the patterns, the colors.
This filter is Tonala." I overhear a couple of votes for Guanajuato,
and even Oaxaca receives credit from a passerby. Mexican Majolica
ceramics are produced not only in Puebla as is commonly assumed, but
can also be found in Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí and
Jalisco. Design styles and the intensity of the glaze color usually
help in determining where the piece originated from, but as is the
case with this particular item, styles can be misleading.

The glaze which gives this water filter a look of having been
nameled is made by boiling a mixture of silica, sand, lead and tin.
When the brew takes on the properties of liquid glass, the object is
dipped into the concoction and left to sun dry. That is how the
creamy white background of this alluring and puzzling filter was
created. Once the glaze dried, undulating blue leaves, flowing yellow
flowers and the geometric green and rust colored patterns would have
been painted over the lead/tin slip-glaze.

Though the city in which this wonderful piece originated may be
ambiguous, the final step in the process of its termination is not.
The filter would have been placed in a large kiln with other ceramics
and fired for the ultimate time from anywhere between thirty to forty

Tossing our camera equipment into the truck, we are still left
Puebla or Tonala?