Mexican Chest

Viceroyalty of New Spain, Mexico
c. 1700

Tortoiseshell and chiselled silver
15 x 19 x 10.8 cm.

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In Mexico these pieces are known as ‘chests’ due to its convex lids, and was a vestige of the large furniture that were part of the usual household items used by the inhabitants of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. These caskets were taken in large quantities to the Iberian Peninsula and were usually donated, especially to churches and parishes where their donors had been baptized; they also came to enrich Sevillian collections of objects arrived from the Indies.

Due to the abundance of turtles in Campeche, many chests were made of tortoiseshell. To achieve the curving of the lid in the Tortoiseshell the material had to be heated to make it malleable, or in some cases and as a way to provide a more clarity, a gold leaf was even placed under the tortoiseshell.

Many little tortoiseshell chests are documented to be from the city of Guadalajara, in the State of Jalisco. Guadalajara was an important producer of this kind of luxury objects. Many little chests and caskets with inscriptions identifying them as made in Guadalajara, are kept in private collections and museums in Mexico. Inscriptions found on some pieces also reveal that many of them were made by pairs like the ones preserved at the Museum of America in Madrid (Inv. 06730 and 06735). According to the researchers, the tortoiseshell was originally from Campeche and was worked on there alongside silversmiths from Guadalajara or ‘tapatios’ as the inhabitants of this city are called.

The key characteristic of these rectangular chests with a semi-circular lid is the use of fine and delicate silver fittings, which contrasts with the warmth of the tortoiseshell. The corner units are made of silver, as are the handles of the upper section, the legs, the keyhole, and all the pieces that as clamps held by means of little spikes also made of silver, to the tortoiseshell plaques, both on the front, back and sides, ensuring their stability.

The tortoiseshell is veneered on a wooden structure.

The piece presented here is elaborately embellished with silver corner units, and it is an example of many other pieces enriched with silver ‘a la carte’.

The ones at the parish church of Santa Maria de Baamonde in Lugo are remarkable, which have engravings with shapes of fans, flowers inside and among the most ornate ones, some with Eucharistic figures made of silver, as the piece from Estella (Navarra) which shows a different technique used with the tortoiseshell, with a drawing of a large four-leaf clover; it is also seen on the piece at Franz Mayer Museum, the one at the church of Santa Maria de Ledesma (Salamanca), or the one sent in 1623 to San Juan Bautista de Santoyo; and also the ones at the Monastery of the Incarnation, and at the Monastery of Reales Descalzas.

The most well documented piece is kept at church of San Lorenzo in Gran Canaria commissioned in Caracas in 1760, and made on a tortoiseshell chest which was likely made in Puebla de los Angeles. An important number of these chests or boxes were sent to Caracas, especially in the first half of the 18th century, to be embellished with silver, according to Duarte, and sometimes bore the name of the possessor or the donor.

The hinges, handles and the lock plaques were made of iron extracted from the Cerro del Mercado, a mine discovered in 1552 by Ginés Vázquez del Mercado.

This is a fragment from the technical file by Paz Aguiló


Barrón García, Aurelio A. “Artistic ornaments and Indian donations in the North of Cantabria” Art and Indian patronage, from the Bay of Biscay to the Caribbean. Luis Sazatornil, ed. Ediciones Trea, 2007, 349-410.

“American works in tortoiseshell, 17th and 18th centuries”. Published by La Cartuja. Essays on decorative arts, num- 1.

“The Footprint and the Path. Canary Islands,” Diocese of the Canary Islands 2004. Pp.588-590

Duarte, Carlos F. “Furniture and interior decoration throughout the Venezuelan Hispanic Period”. Armitano Editors. 1995, Caracas 19.173-174.

Expertise of Paz Aguiló