Talavera twins: two sides of a tiling culture that can trace its origins back to the 1570s

Talavera twins: two sides of a tiling culture that can trace its origins back to the 1570s

October 2018

Alberto Ruy Sanchez Lacy once called Mexican tile a chosen skin, reflecting the way in which tiles  embellish public and private spaces across Mexico.  Particularly in the central states, Talavera tiles decorate a broad range of spaces from kitchens, fountains, and façades, through to hacienda homes and churches.  These hand-crafted tiles reveal an artisanal sensibility and creativity that is deeply rooted in the cultural heritage of Mexico.  In the last 20 or 30 years, however, modern mas production of tiles has built on an indutry that first took root in Mexico in the late sixteen century.  Here TSJ explores both sides of what is a highly significant utilitarian and decorative element of Mexican architecture.

Most readers of TSJ, when they think of Mexican tiles, would probably call to mind either richly coloured red body glazed wall tiles on a 4in bumpy biscuit, or 100 by 100mm boldly patterned Talavera tiles: the Bollywood alternative to Europe’s more restrained mainstream wall tiles.

However, there is another side to the Mexican tile industry.  It may come as some surprise to learn that Mexico is unique in having three of the world’s largest tile producing companies when ranked by annual production: Lamosa, Interceramic and Vitromex.  These are all advanced manufacturers with state-of-the-art plants capable of producing everything from small format glazed wall tiles right up to today’s XXL porcelain panels.

This feature will embrace both sides of the Mexican ceramic tile industry, offering a contemporary take on the historical legacy of Talavera tiles, and also profiling the key players that make Mexico one of today’s leading tile producing nations.

According to Ceramic World Review, in 2016 domestic demand for tiles in Mexico continued its upward trend to reach 235 million sq. metres; up 7.8% on 2015 and 26% on 2013.  The country’s indigenous tile producers responded to this higher domestic consumption by increasing output by 9%, from 245 to 267 million sq. metres.  At the same time Mexican imports slumped by 34%, from 35 to 23 million sq. metres.

Today Mexico is the world’s 8th largest tile exporter with overseas sales of 56 million sq. metres, mostly shipped to the USA.

The three big players, as noted above, are Lamosa, Vitromex and Interceramic.  Grupo Lamosa is the world’s third largest tile producing business, with an annual production of between 130 and 150 million sq. metres, and a theoretical maximum annual capacity in excess of 180 million sq. metres.  It exports around 26% of production and, in 2016, achieved tile revenues of US$664 million.  It operates many plants: 10 in Mexico, three in Argentina, three in Colombia, and one in Peru.  Its products are sold under a number of different brand identities: Lamosa, Porcelanite, Firenze, Italica, San Lorenzo, and Cordillera.

Vitromex ranks 11th in the world league table, with annual production of 55 million sq. metres.  It has five plants in Mexico, and sells under the Vitromex, Construpiso, Artemis, and Arko brand names.

Interceramic is the world’s 22nd largest tile producer, with annual output of 44 million sq. metres.  The company’s annual tile revenue is US$334 million, out of  total group revenues, including sanitaryware, of US$445 million.  It has three tile plants in Mexico and one in the USA, all selling under the Interceramic brand.

Judging from the CWR statistics, these three companies must stand head and shoulders above all the other Mexican tile producers.

However, there remains a thriving artisanal tile production culture in Mexico, that exploits the continuing popularity of the brightly glazed Tavalera tiles.  Today’s ‘true’ Talavera tiles are hand-formed from the rich black and white volcanic soils in and around Puebla, Mexico.

However, as the name suggests, Mexico hasn’t always been Talavera’s home.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish town of Talavera de la Reina was so renowned for its ceramics that it was dubbed La Ciudad de la Cerámica; a place where Dutch and Arab settlers worked alongside indigenous craftsmen to create the inimitable Talavera style.

When the city of Puebla, Mexico was established in 1531, following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the production of ceramic goods quickly followed, exploiting the high quality local clay and drawing on a tradition of glazed earthenware production.

Introduced to new production and glazing methods by the Spanish, the local ceramic industry was transformed, and Talavera’s now-distinctive look emerged.

Talavera is sometimes referred to as Mexican maiolica, in reference to the tin-glazing technique.  Blue, which quickly became the most desired colour, was introduced in the 14th century.

Originally, the colour blue spoke explicitly to its quality.  Because blue pigments were more expensive, ceramics featuring the colour blue were easily differentiated as being of the highest quality in the 16th and 17th centuries.

During the 18th century, it became more common to use green, mauve and yellow, along with blue.  These hues were all created using natural pigments, as they still are today in the most authentic Mexican workshops.

It wasn’t just the colour of Talavera that was important, but also the volume.  The number of Talavera tiles on the façade of a building was equated with the prosperity of a family or business; hence the saying “to never be able to build a house with tiles” came into common parlance.  In other words, if you weren’t able to build a house with tiles, you hadn’t amounted to much in life.

Today, the term Talavera has been widely adopted by another ceramic-producing region in the Mexican state of Guanajuato.  Critics claim that while much of this pottery is pretty, it is quickly produced, and does not match the quality of the highly detailed, rigorously defined process that is required for authentic Tavalera: a method that is only followed in the Puebla region.  True Talavera, it is said, also requires the use of the specific volcanic soils found only in this region.  Other key features of low quality alternatives include the use of commercial colours rather than the natural pigments, and tile designs that are stamped on the tiles, rather than meticulously hand-painted.

For buyers, therefore, the lesson is that not all Mexican Talavera tiles are created equal and that much of what is called Talavera or Talavera-style is manufactured using a lower level of craftsmanship than that used to create true Talavera tile with its dedication to historical legacy and high quality.

It is also true that Tavalera represents a melting pot of cultures - from Arabic to Italian, Spanish to Chinese - all melded in a Mexican melting pot.  

Today, many distributors play up the social and environmental aspects of informed sourcing of Mexican Tavalera tiles: referencing a commitment to sustainability, artisan welfare and fair trade practices.  
In recent years, as colour and smaller formats have started to re-emerge in mainstream tiling, Mexican Tavalera have started to enjoy something of a revival.  Many restaurants and bars now feature these vibrantly coloured, hand-crafted works in their interiors.

These buyers have embraced anew the depth of craft skill that goes into true Tavalera tiles.  The process begins by blending together two different clays, then soaking them thoroughly in water to improve pliability. When the clay is ready, following the removal of all impurities, it is then formed into the desired shape by hand, or moulds before being left to dry; a process that cam take up to three months. Most tiles are then biscuit fired, hand-glazed, and then fired for a second time.  

The initial firing turns the clay into a reddish-orange colour that is then brightly painted with the intricate patterns that are the true mark of Talavera tiles. Typically, the vivid patterns are slightly raised, and the entire piece covered by a glossy glazed sheen.

Featuring a myriad of bold colours, notably yellow, green, mauve, and blue, today’s Talavera patterns can be simple and bold, or elaborate and highly detailed. Floral patterns are common, but when it comes to Mexican Talavera, creativity is limitless.  Although some patterns might appear similar, hand-painted Talavera is never identical.  They do, however, share common colour and pattern themes, and the individual character of each piece only enhances the tile’s appeal.

Popular for bathrooms, kitchens, and splashbacks, Talavera tiles, when placed together in geometrical and symmetrical designs, can lead to striking, bold and unusual patterns.

The tiles are meant to have small flaws, underlining their rustic authenticity.  Officianados appreciate these small imperfections as they emphasise the Mexican design and culture. The most common size of these tiles is 4in by 4in, but both larger and smaller formats are also available.

While Puebla remains the spiritual home of Talavera  tile, excellent products can also be found in nearby places such as Cholula, Atlixco, and Tecali.

Given the near perfection of today’s mass-produced European tiles, the imperfections of Mexican Tavalera tiles really stand out.  Some Mexican tile designs may not be perfectly flat or perfectly square, and some may even feature imprints of animal tracks or debris, creating a truly old-world feeling in the home.

For flooring applications, the Mexican option is Saltillo tiles; a ceramic tile style that features a wide variety of earth colours, such as varying hues of brown, beige, orange, yellow, and even red.  These rich, warm colours make them ideal for most relaxed and ethnically-inspired decor treatments.

In Mexico City, the church of the Convent of La Encarnacion and the church of the Virgin of Valvanera both feature cupolas covered in Talavera tiles.  The most famous example of Talavera in the capital city is the Casa de los Azulejos, or House of Tiles; an 18th-century palace built by the Count del Valle de Orizaba.  This palace’s façade is covered on three sides by exquisite blue and white tiles. and caused something of a sensational when they were first applied.

Mexico’s Top Three Producers
Interceramic started operations in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1979, introducing new technology in the manufacture of floors and tiles to Mexico.  Today, it is one of the largest manufacturers in North America, with a production capacity of 44.0 million sq. metres per annum in nine plants located in four industrial complexes: three in Chihuahua, Mexico and one in Garland, Texas.

It has a unique distribution system with almost 300 franchise stores in Mexico, 12 exhibition halls and wholesale centres in the USA, and more than 40 independent distributors in the USA and Canada; as well as six Interceramic stores in Guatemala and Panama.

In addition, it operates a marketing system for ceramic tiles and floors in China; with 85 ICC stores (Interceramic brand in China) in that country. The Interceramic claims that its products stand out for their quality, exclusivity and richness of design.  Based on the latest trends, Interceramic offers large formats, such as  200 by 1,800mm wood-effect planks, and stone-effects in 800 by 1,800mm, beautiful brick shapes, and impressive high-gloss marbles.

For instance, the Black Forest range delivers the sinuous nature of the wood with shades of colour and texture that imitate the delicate grain of the surface.  Rated PEI III and IV, the formats are 600 by 1,200mm, 295 by 1,190mm and 195 by 1,190mm

Based on buildings built entirely of brick, Bricklane plays tribute to a number of urban centres around the world with an artisan touch that reflects the industrial development of cities such as London, and New York.  Rated PEI IV, Bricklane is offered in 75 by 300mm

Another wood-effect range, Marseille is based on those details that magnify nature.  The main port of France is surrounded by mountains covered with oak, and this provided the inspiration for the development of a range that delivers outstanding design in 200 by 1,140mm and 300 by 90mm formats.

Other designs in the current portfolio include Nives Glacier White and Pietra Cristal; the latter communicating the power of traditional glass in a contemporary and imposing way.
The Pearl range, which feature strong designs such as Positano Pearl, is a selection of carefully chosen stones  that combine the look of natural rock with an intense pearl tint, realised in a 300 by 900mm format and a texture that reinterprets stone in a contemporary way.

Tradition and modernity live side-by-side in the Santorini range, where the contrast between craftsmanship and technology is reflected in the tonalities and the dimensions of the 410 by 1,140mm pieces.
Presented in the same unusual 410 by 1,140mm format, and a taupe colourway, Stafford aims to recreate the sensations and experiences os an English mansions.

The Urban collection is a unique blend of the natural beauty of stone and high-level materials. The blend of shades along with smooth and worked surfaces create totally new look and feel effects.  The recent addition of four new models to the Urban range - Frankfurt, Zurich, Ankara, and Toronto,  positions it as one of Interceramic’s ranges with the greatest design potential.  PEI IV rated, it is available in 600 by 1,200mm and 590 by 1,190mm (rectified) formats.

Other stand-out ranges include 3Wood where the essence of timbers like walnut, and oak, are expressed in an elongated 200 by 1,790mm plank format.

Formed back in 1933, with the acquisition of Porcelanite in November 2007, the Porcelanite-Lamosa Group became the largest ceramic tile producer in the world with a production capacity in excess of 120 million sq. metres per annum.

In 2016, Grupo Lamosa acquired Ceramica San Lorenzo, further strengthening its presence in South America.  This acquisition boosted the Group’s ceramic tile production capacity by 40%, with new plants and distribution centres in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Peru.

Today exports are an important and growing part of the business, with over 20% of production now sold in the USA, Central and South America.

Investment in state-of-the-art production technology has boosted productivity and allowed the Group to add  high value added products with superior quality to its portfolio marketed via brands such as Porcelanite, Lamosa, Itálica, and Firenze Tecnoarte.

Today Grupo Lamosa prides itself on offering innovative products with multiple choices of texture, colour, finish and style; and ceramic tiles that contribute to sustainable construction by allowing credits for  LEED certification.  Lamosa was the first Mexican manufacturer to be certified under the Tile Council of North America’s Green Squared sustainability standard.

Three significant dates help chart Grupo Lamosa’s steady progress to its world-leading position.  The Group’s adhesive business started in 1957 with a small plant in Monterrey; the first company in Mexico producing and commercializing cement-based adhesives for ceramic floors and tiles: the Crest brand.

Then, in 1963, Lamosa starting manufacturing sanitaryware through the newly acquired Sanitarios Azteca; today called Sanitarios Lamosa.

Finally, in 2005, the new Firenze Tecnoarte line of high-end glazed porcelain tiles was launched, with the San Luis Potosí tile plant doubling its production capacity.

In 2015, Grupo Lamosa sold its sanitaryware business to the Colombian company Corona, in order to focus on its ceramic tile and adhesives operations.

Vitromex has a proud 50 year history of ceramic tile production, but does not intend to rest on its laurels.  It has recently enhanced its expertise in large-format  red-body ceramic tiles in traditional formats up to 600 by 600mm, by adding new impressive formats to the portfolio such as 500 by 1,000mm rectified tiles.

The choice of designs has been enhanced with stone-effects such as the Scanno range, marble-effects like the Carrara Bianco range, and wood-effects like the Monet range.

The 2018 portfolio reflects today’s desire for minimal grout joints and minimalist decoration.  This means that the most recent designs are soft,light and luxurious.

The most notable evidence of the care taken when refreshing the product portfolio is the extended range of wood-effect tiles.  In addition to Monet, Vitromex produces a wide choice of other wood-effect designs including Couvet, Diversity, Amazonian, American, Irish, Nevada, and Oregon.  The Ïvok collection brings its all together offering warm and natural environments.

In 2017 Vitromex ramped up its marketing campaign to promote ceramic tiles as a versatile and decorative surface option for residential, commercial, and institutional architecture, stressing the range of potential uses across floors, ventilated façades, ceilings, wall panels, and outdoor areas.

Vitromex’s Do it with Ceramics initiative - promoted via the company’s website and across social networks - has helped this Mexican powerhouse to guide consumers and construction professionals alike in the process of selection, purchase, and installation of ceramic floors and walls for their projects.

In decoration, Vitromex offers faithful reproduction of natural textures, including  the most exotic woods, coupled with a great diversity of new sizes and shapes.

It has also innovated in the area of three-dimensional surfaces, where the designs are not only visual, but also physical, generating movement and attractive optical effects of light and shadow.  It has also developed many new large format designs, promoting them as an intelligent option for institutional and commercial sectors.

Grupo Lamosa websites
www.sanlorenzo.com.pe + .com.co

Interceramic websites

Vitromex websites

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