In Olinala, Crafting Lacquerware Is Way of Life

This dusty Mexican town, with its white-washed adobe houses and unpaved narrow streets, is way off the beaten tourist trail--10 hours from Mexico City by car. There are few tourist amenities, and Olinala might well go unnoticed were it not for the colorful lacquerware that is made here.

It is the principal source for beautiful Mexican lacquerware: the highly decorative and brightly colored chests, trays, platters, boxes, panelled screens, gourds and coffee tables that are treasured by collectors of Mexican folk art and crafts.

Lacquerware is also Olinala’s main source of income. A majority of the town’s families work as independent production units, often with special design motifs or signature colors. Fathers and mothers have taught their children through successive generations the techniques that predate the 16th Century Spanish conquest, and so the art has continued. In Olinala, lacquerware is a way of life.

And the art has received wide-spread recognition in the U.S., as well as in Japan and Europe.


Olinala artisans usually work in one of two styles: dorado and rayado.

Named for the gold leaf formerly used to sketch the decorations, dorado is distinguished by use of additional colors applied on top of a base coat to create bold floral patterns or idyllic or patriotic scenes of Mexican history and religion.

Rayado is more complicated. A second color is applied over the base coat to create floral patterns, usually combined with animal motifs and some geometric designs. While the color is still damp, a turkey feather quill is used to fashion details such as flower petals.

Rayado designs are usually painted in red or blue on white, black on red or red on a black background. But contemporary artists work in pastels and have created some white-on-white designs.


After pieces are decorated, their surfaces are burnished to a high shine.

Modern workmanship is durable but quality, as defined in detailing and design execution, varies and is noticeable even to the untrained eye.

At one time, richly scented aloe wood was used to make items to be lacquered. But aloe wood is becoming increasingly rare and softer pine rubbed with aloe wood oil is now often substituted.

Although artists have distinctive styles, work is rarely signed. Lacquerware is an anonymous art, just as it has been for centuries.


Buyers who purchase lacquerware in Olinala, directly from the artisans, will pay 15% to 50% less than in markets, craft shops or gift boutiques. But if Olinala is too remote for a visit, lacquerware items are plentiful in Mexico’s cities and resorts.

FONART has several excellent shops in Mexico City. The largest and best-stocked is at Avenida Patriotismo 691, which is the only branch that will ship items. Other FONART shops are at Londres 136 in the Zona Rosa, Avenida Juarez 89 near Alameda Park, Avenida de la Paz in San Angel and Avenida Insurgentes 1630.

FONART prices are fixed and reasonable. Large hope chests (about four feet long and three feet high, including legs) in dorado or rayado style sell for about $250 to $375. Rayado trays, measuring about 14 by 22 inches, cost $26 and up. Small rayado jewelry or trinket boxes sell for about $15 and up. The FONART shops don’t always have a large selection of lacquerware, but what they do have is usually of top quality.

Another government-sponsored museum and shop, the Museo Nacional de Artes y Industrias Populares, in a beautiful colonial building at Avenida Juarez 44 (across from the Alameda Park), is worth a visit. Prices and quality of merchandise are similar to those at FONART.


Independent vendors may be slightly less expensive for lacquerware items, especially if you bargain.

In Mercado San Juan, a large multilevel crafts market located at the corner of Dolores and Ayuntamiento, a few blocks from the Alameda Park, contains shops with plentiful supplies of Olinala lacquerware in both dorado and rayado styles. Several shops (including locations 57, 61 and 69) are owned by Luis Carlos Trujillo, who has strong contacts with Olinala artisans and can help with special orders, including large objects such as head boards or bedroom sets that cost thousands of dollars.

Trujillo also sells the work of Olinala artist Margarito Ayala, who is acclaimed for the bright colors and luster of his work. Ayala’s pieces usually cost about double the amount asked for similar objects by lesser artists. An Ayala tray may sell for about $45.

Mercado Artesanias la Ciudadela, another popular craft market located on Balderas next to Parque Ciudadela, also has shops selling Olinala lacquerware. Artesanias Maggi (40 near the market entrance), has the biggest selection and offers discounts for cash purchases.


Lovely Olinala pieces are also displayed at Mercado Sabado, open on Saturdays in the exclusive residential neighborhood of San Angel in the southern section of Mexico City. The market ambience is delightful and the quality of goods is high, as are the prices. Better bargains are available at other outlets.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.