Mexico Life
A sleek obsidian puma in the Navajas obsidian workshop. A sleek obsidian puma in the Navajas obsidian workshop.

Artisans in Las Navajas create sophisticated sculptures from obsidian

Craftsmen revive ancient Mexican tradition using modern tools

Wonderful things may be hidden away in the most unexpected places.

The tiny pueblo of Las Navajas is located 30 kilometers southwest of Guadalajara, definitely off the beaten path.

I first wandered into Las Navajas in 2005, having been told I would find a little workshop there where local artisans had revived an ancient Mexican tradition: that of creating works of art from obsidian, the natural volcanic glass which is found in such abundance in the state of Jalisco that its deposits are reckoned to be the fourth largest in the entire world.

As I stepped through the narrow doorway, I guess I expected to see Mexican Michelangelos quietly chipping away at black rock with hammer and chisel.

Instead, I was greeted by tumultuous roaring, screeching and buzzing, with great clouds of white powder filling the air. Out of the cloud stepped a thin man covered with dust, wearing a warm and peaceful smile.

'Have a drink!' Eleno and Manuel with an obsidian wine bottle and glass.
‘Have a drink!’ Eleno and Manuel with an obsidian wine bottle and glass.

This was Don Eleno Espinoza who, with his brother, started this backyard operation some 25 years ago. All the noise and dust came from numerous belt-driven grinding and polishing wheels with which these craftspeople transform rough chunks of obsidian into creations of all kinds.

You may think of obsidian as black glass, but one glance at the raw materials lying on the workshop floor will convince you that western Mexico’s obsidian comes in every color imaginable.

“Just outside Navajas,” Don Eleno told me, “we have huge deposits of a red and black combination known as Indian’s blood; in El Pedernal you can find yellow, chocolate and gray and in a pre-Hispanic mine near here the obsidian is dark green and flawless.

“But the most popular of all is arcoiris, in which you can see all the colors of the rainbow. We get this obsidian by trading with a little rancho called La Lobera. If you think Navajas is in the middle of nowhere, you ought to see where La Lobera is!”

Local archaeologists have, in fact, found more than 20 colors of obsidian, plus varieties of the volcanic glass that glimmer with a golden or silver sheen when you place them in the sun.

Obsidian with a silver sheen which changes as the light hits it.
Obsidian with a silver sheen which changes as the light hits it.

The artisans of Las Navajas started out making simple shapes like butterflies and hearts, but over the years learned to create far more sophisticated sculptures, inspired by some of Mexico’s leading artists, people like Diego Martínez Negrete and Dolores Ortiz, who would come to them with a clay figure saying, “Can you make this for me in obsidian?”

On a recent visit to the rustic taller, I spotted a sleek puma on the prowl, perfect in every way. I also discovered a beautifully tooled set of obsidian massage tools, commissioned by the owners of a spa. “They are used for giving ‘hot rock’ massages,” said Don Eleno proudly, “and they liked this set so much they asked for three more.”

As I wandered about the workshop, Eleno’s partner in art, Don Manuel Suárez, asked me if I’d like some wine, gesturing toward a black bottle on a table. I was entirely taken in until I picked up the “bottle” which, of course, was yet another ingenious sculpture.

I should mention that the techniques used by Eleno and Manuel are quite different from those employed in pre-Hispanic times. A typical “workshop” in those days might have consisted of nothing more than a flat spot under a shady tree. There the ancient craftsman would sit or squat, perhaps with a deer-horn punch in one hand and a round basalt stone (for a hammer) in the other.

Between his legs he would place a cone-shaped obsidian core, with the wide, flat end upward. A tap in the right spot would fracture the natural glass and, of course, the skill was to split the obsidian in exactly the right place, to produce a blade with a fine edge.

Your Swiss army knife is made of metal, so it can only be sharpened down to the size of its molecules, but because obsidian is glass, it has no crystal structure. This means there is no limit to how fine an edge you can put on it.

Obsidian scalpels are said to be far sharper than those of the finest surgical steel and, according to Dr. Lee Green of the University of Alberta, microscopic comparison of the two in action demonstrated that the walls of the obsidian incision were nice and smooth, while the cut made by surgical steel “looked like it had been made by a chainsaw.”

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Before the arrival of the Spaniards, there was surely no raw material as valuable as obsidian and controlling an obsidian deposit was probably similar to owning an oil well today.

Nevertheless, in today’s Mexico a chunk of even the most flawless obsidian sells for about a peso a kilo, which means that you can take your pick of the many kinds and colors of obsidian strewn around the floor of the workshop at Las Navajas.

“What you pay for is the time and effort we put into shaping and polishing the piece that you want,” says Don Eleno.

The workshop at Las Navajas was launched in 1994 “with a lot of satisfaction but also a lot of disappointments,” thanks to help from the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, which created some 250,000 “Committees of Solidarity” all over Mexico, offering financial and technical help to grassroots enterprises.

This program helped with training and publicity and encouraged artisans to participate in competitions. “We entered a nationwide contest and won third prize,” says Eleno.

“We were proud and wanted to keep that piece, but money was tight and we had to eat so, despite all the praise heaped upon it, we sold it for a thousand pesos. But con dinero o sin dinero — with or without money — we are still here!”

If you find yourself in western Mexico and want to visit the Navajas obsidian workshop, you can give Don Eleno a call at 01-384-738-6142. To find the workshop, zoom in on the map.

Note that Don Eleno’s crew is happy to create whatever you might have in mind. You can give them a model, a photo or just an idea and they will produce it in obsidian for a very reasonable price.

The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.

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