Love in Mexico

Navigating family and place


Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico
December 31
This blog documents the encounters and events that taught me about Mexico, and about the culture of family, Mexico's and my own. .............................................… Find more of my work at ........................................... Thanks for reading.


Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 7, 2011 11:26AM

Getting The Lead Out Of Mexican Ceramics

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Pottery 1

 Glazed dishes being stacked into a traditional open-top, wood-fired kiln, Capula, Mexico


For the Super Bowl, we headed across the street to a steak place with a big television. We ordered Victoria beers and hammered-thin bistec served a la mexicana or arrachera, with grilled nopales. As usual, it was served on heavy, handmade red ceramic plates decorated with a rustic pointillism around the edges. I am no expert in Michoacán artesanías, but because I’m in up to my ears with my husband’s doctoral research into the politics of cottage industries and the global markets, I know one thing: these dishes, a little worse for wear, are glazed with lead.

As an American mother, I know all kinds of things about lead.

I know that lead, even if it is “all natural,” does not belong in the body, even if we went around licking rocks. But because it is smelted out of rock and incorporated into items that humans come into contact with (chipping paint, leaching water pipes, burning leaded gas fumes), we all carry some of that heavy mineral around with us. High body loads lead to lead poisoning, but even low levels can have devastating effects. As has been recognized for at least two millennia (although long denied by petroleum and paint producers), lead damages brains, particularly children’s brains.

To make matters worse, lead is passed from generation to generation: lead, like calcium, is actively drawn out of a pregnant woman’s body by the placenta and delivered in concentrated form to a developing fetus.

In the U.S. (overcoming decades of industry lobbying to the contrary) lead has been largely eliminated from new products. It hasn’t been allowed in paint in the U.S. since before I was born, and was removed from gasoline in 1990, before I was old enough to drive a car. And the U.S. is late to the game: an international covenant banning lead from interior house paint went into effect in 1925.

But Mexico is still fighting lead, particularly in its traditionally made ceramic tableware like the plates my family dined from last night.

As with many dangers to society (see my recent article on seatbelts!), using lead glaze on dishes intended for food is technically illegal in Mexico. But the reality is different. According to potters, people who buy their products prefer the shinier leaded glazes to the lead-free alternatives that state and federal agencies have concocted and attempted to disseminate. With competition for domestic markets on the rise since the NAFTA came into force in 1994, and profit margins for this cottage industry already razor thin, artisans are disinclined to abandon centuries-old methods. But while this reticence might help potters cling to a diminishing slice of their domestic market, it fully excludes them from global markets (the U.S., like most developed markets, forbids the import of food items containing lead).  But world markets are my husband’s territory, not mine (you can read his take in this month’s issue of Americas Quarterly


Pottery 2


A potter at work in Capula.


What distresses me is that Mexican shoppers are not concerned about lead, even when it's on their chipping dinner plates; nor are producers, who paint by hand and fire lead-glazed dishes in open-top kilns next to their homes. I worry for them. I worry for their children.

And so I admire the potters from Capula who have upgraded to lead-free glazes in spite of economic risks and the inherent resistance we all have to changing our ways.

Overcoming the temptation to use lead means that artisans will be able to pass down knowledge they themselves inherited to their own children, because the industry will not have crumbled under the weight of globalization (as continued lead use ensures). And they can do so without also handing down toxic body burdens of lead to those same children.

And besides being healthful, the lead-free pottery is really beautiful.


Pottery 3

Lead-free dishes made by Fernando Arroyo, Capula, Mexico


Pottery 4

Intricate painting is time-consuming (these are Michoacán's iconic fish), and risking this work to experimental firing deters artisans from upgrading.


Pottery 5

Detail of previous piece.


Pottery 6

This over-sized, lead-free platter, which took two months to finish--Capula's pottery is painted with a sort of pointillism--is hard to sell in Mexico, where prices are dropping due to the influx of foreign imports. Needless to say, profit margins are razor thin, further deterring experimentation with new methods.

Pottery 7

Detail of previous piece.



Photos by Steven Samford, ©2010. Used with permission.

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Wow! I just learned something new. Yes, change can be hard.

Those plates and dishes are incredible.
Fantastic post, beautiful photos, great detail. Thank you. I love pottery!
The pottery in your post is simply beautiful.~r
I have a thing for pottery and those pictures are gorgeous--lead or no.
Lovely, lovely. I love the bright turquoises and azure blues, the yellows. Nicely done and informative thanks for this.
A Colorful Display of Artistry and Craftsmanship in Mexican Pottery.
Lead-based glazes are tempting for these potters. They're cheap, the colors are (usually) always true, and when mixed properly, they're very easy to work with. Lead glazes don't run in the kiln, either, something that any commercial potter dreads.

The cheap alternative for lead is majolica. The pieces are covered in a white underglaze, the designs painted on in color, then the piece is dipped in clear glaze before firing. It has all of the benefits of lead without the toxicity. It also works well in the low temperature firing that these artisans do.

It would be interesting to see if anyone has suggested it in Mexico.
@Aunt Messy -- a Mexican collaboration of chemists and artists have developed a boron-based esmalte-sin-plomo to replace the lead-oxide greta--I'm not so sure about the pigments themselves. Potters complain that the new lead-free glaze doesn't have as glossy a sheen, and that pots can stick together after the firing, and so on. Experimentation goes on, with state, and grassroots organizations pitching in to endorse the new glaze and train artisans, but it's touch and go and a lot of artisans are on the defensive (you know how it is, outsiders coming in to tell them how to do what their families have been doing for generation).
Great article and informative comments. I see more and more ceramics around Pátzcuaro and Morelia marked "sin plomo." Do you have any opinion on whether these works are really lead free, or are some potters merely adding this inscription to leaded works because they know buyers are looking for it? Without a portable test kit (which I unfortunately left in the States), it's hard to know whether a shiny green glaze marked "sin plomo" really is.
Thank you for making us aware of this problem, because I know if I ever get to Mexico, I will buy up gorgeous pottery like a fiend - at least now I know I have to watch out. This article was so well-written and informative - like everything you post - and I loved the bonus of the gorgeous pictures. R!!!
@ marke190 -- If it says "sin plomo," then it probably is. The artisans who are disdainful of the lead-free movement are just that.

That said, pottery that does NOT say "sin plomo," probably does have lead, even if you're shopping at Casa de Artesanias. Particularly the reddish "barra"; the grayer pottery--usually higher end--is made from "pasta" (I don't know why it's called that, maybe from "paste"?) and it is fired in gas kilns at high temps, and artists who have upgraded this far are generally using lead-free glazes.
Beautiful photos and important info re: the issue of lead in pottery, a risk for both the consumer and the artists and their families. For folks in the U.S. who would like to support the artisans and purchase beautiful lead-free pottery by Fernando Arroyo and other artists, it is available through our website: Thanks for a great post!