OBSIDIAN Ana Gabriela González
«Beware he who cannot contemplate my visage face to face, where he will see his own; if he is my enemy, I will be his enemy and the night beast that hunts his dream with nightmares; if he is my ally, I will be his guide through darkness, the jaguar that guides him to the stars under the impulse of the moon.”
During the emergence and development period of the great city of Teotihuacan, from 100 BC to 700 AC, the exploitation and carving of obsidian turned into important commercial activities for the area: its transportation, commerce and distribution in general reached much of Mesoamerica.
Obsidian is directly linked to the mexica culture, specifically to Tezcatlipoca, an ancient deity considered by the mexicas as one of the creators of the universe. The black color represents him, which is why he is considered the god of darkness and everything that occurs within it (theft, adultery, etc.).
One of his most representative insignia is the obsidian mirror, the fuming mirror, with which he could look at people’s faces and hearts: he sees everything, past, present, future. The mirror, called Tezcatl, was used exclusively by sorcerers as a tool for black magic. To observe its depths allowed for trips to other times and places, to the world of the gods and of our ancestors. Through reflection, Tezcal identified our defects, and at the same time, provided a clear image of the necessary changes to correct and eliminate them.
For the inhabitants of pre Hispanic Mexico, obsidian, also know as Iztli, had significant applications and was considered the quintessential raw material for the production of sharp tools and arms. Warriors, priests and Aztec gods also wore various objects made of obsidian such as necklaces, earrings, lip ornaments and scepters. It was also considered a commercial good for exchange, and hence, an object of social status and great economic relevance. However, its primary function within the pre Hispanic cultures was to be used as a cutting tool: its sharpness is its predominant physical property, exceeding any type of steel or aluminum currently used as a cutting tool.
In Mexico today, we can find more than forty obsidian deposits, primarily in the Las Navajas mountain range, in the state of Hidalgo. There is clear evidence of the exploitation by the Teotihuacan, Toltecs and Aztecs in the area; the deposits remain active to this day. Tons of obsidian is extracted from them and for the majority of the workers in these deposits, the mining profession is passed down from generation to generation. There are approximately fifteen mines with four workers working in each one that exist today. Each mine worker has to pay at least 700 pesos (about 52 USD) a month to the communal land to be allowed to work in the mine; this investment is recovered by the ton of stone they sell monthly to the workshops in Teotihuacan. Obsidian tends to be black, it can also be dark or light green, reddish and veined with white, black and red. The price of a kilo of obsidian varies depending on the coloring and quality of the stone. The gold one, with a better quality, sets the highest price at 25 pesos (1.8 USD) a kilo.
Leaving out certain blades for heart and eye surgeries, obsidian is currently extracted for the production of ornamental objects, figures that imitate pre Hispanic models, sculptures, masks, souvenirs, healing stones, ashtrays, jewelry, among others. These pieces are made by craftsmen from the communities close to the deposits like that of Nopalillo, in Epazoyucan city, near the state of Pachuca.
In Nopalillo is where Ana Gabriela González met master Juan Castelán, a specialized craftsman in obsidian work and former mine worker in the region. Juan set up a small workshop in the back of his house and taught his sons, Juan and Alejandro, the techniques of working with obsidian.
Usually, Juan works on demand. He points out that the most requested objects are polished stones for massage, which he practically mass produces, and other geometric objects like pyramids, eggs and spheres, among others. These pieces are easy and cheap to make, which is why they sell fast. Juan explains that the main consumers of obsidian are tourists who buy idols.
Ana Gabriela is an industrial designer. Her curiosity for obsidian work sprung from a video she saw of a rough stone being cut at a certain angle through which a blade was obtained, so thin and precise, that it could easily pierce through a tire or the main rib of an agave. After an extensive historic, geologic and current social context investigation, Ana realized there was oblivion of the ritual purpose and practice of obsidian. She found a great opportunity to implement her design knowledge and learn from an ancient profession; to research the value of Mexican labor to produce objects that have relevant use: kitchen knives. To achieve that, she had to delve into the ancient forms of sharp objects.
Through her research on different commonly used modern kitchen knives, and from understanding Juan’s job, she set up a collaboration in the design process.
“It is important to give it a new focus and strengthen the handicraft production of obsidian; search for new uses and new forms because, due to its current use, most of the craftsmanship work goes to waste and is sold off cheap. This results in the loss of the profession, as well as the loss of an important and ancient tradition.»
–Ana Gabriela González