Gold and silver were once the basis for Mexico’s wealth. Her Spanish conquerors plundered a mountain of gold—ritual offerings, necklaces, pendants, rings, plates—masterfully crafted by a legion of indigenous jewelers. Unfortunately, much of that native tradition was lost as the colonial Spanish denied Mexicans access to precious metals and introduced Spanish methods. Nevertheless, a small native gold-working tradition survived the dislocations of the 1810–1821 War of Independence and the 1910–1917 Revolution. Meanwhile, silver crafting, moribund during the 1800s, was revived in Taxco, Guerrero, during the 1920s, principally through the joint efforts of architect-artist William Spratling and the local community.
Today, spurred by the tourist boom, jewelry-making is thriving in Mexico. Taxco, where guilds, families, and cooperatives produce sparkling silver and gold adornments, is the acknowledged center. Several Oaxaca shops offer Taxco-made jewelry—shimmering ornamental butterflies, birds, jaguars, serpents, turtles, and fish from the pre-conquest tradition. Pieces, mostly in silver, vary from humble but attractive trinkets to glittering necklaces, silver candelabras, and place settings for a dozen, sometimes embellished with precious stones.
Oaxaca also has a healthy local jewelry- making tradition. Acknowledged leader in Oaxaca City  is the family firm of Oro de Monte Albán. Their several city and coastal resort shops offer replicas of the ancient Mixtec designs, notably of many pieces found at Monte Albán ’s Tomb 7.
Tehuántepec women (tehuanas) have created a demand for elaborate gold filigree jewelry, made from fine wires and often decorated with pearls and precious stones. The finest, ranging from 10 to 18 karat (42–75 percent pure) gold, is more often kept in safe deposit boxes and used only on ceremonial occasions. Much more common is chapa de oro, gold look-alike filigree that contains no gold at all. Women sell this jewelry in Oaxaca City , at the north-central entrance of the 20 de Noviembre market and in the Isthmus, at the Juchitán and Tehuántepec markets.
One hundred percent pure silver is rarely sold because it’s too soft. Silver (most of which is sent from processing mills in the north of Mexico to be worked in Taxco shops) is nearly always alloyed with 7.5 percent copper to increase its durability. Such pieces, identical in composition to sterling silver, should have “.925,” together with the initials of the manufacturing jeweler, stamped on their back sides. Other, less common grades, such as “800 fine” (80 percent silver), should also be stamped.
If silver is not stamped with the degree of purity, it probably contains no silver at all and is an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel, known by the generic label “alpaca,” or “German” silver. Once, after haggling over the purity and prices of his offerings, a street vendor handed me a shiny handful and said, “Go to a jeweler and have them tested. If they’re not real, keep them.” Calling his bluff, I took them to a jeweler, who applied a dab of hydrochloric acid to each piece. Tiny, tell-tale bubbles of hydrogen revealed the cheapness of the merchandise, which I returned the next day to the vendor.
Some shops price sterling silver jewelry simply by weighing, which typically translates to about $1 per gram. If you want to find out if the price is fair, ask the shopkeeper to weigh it for you.
Oaxaca City  itself is a gold jewelry center, mainly due to the skill and enterprise of the family-owned Oro de Monte Albán business. They maintain three shops, two in Oaxaca City  and one in Puerto Escondido .
People universally prize pure gold, partly because, unlike silver, it does not tarnish. Gold, nevertheless, is rarely sold pure (24 karat); for durability, it is alloyed with copper. Typical purity levels, such as 18 karat (75 percent) or 14 karat (58 percent), should be stamped on the pieces. If not, chances are they contain no gold at all.