One of our best-selling items from Mexico has to be our colourful, ceramic skulls. When we opened the shop four years ago, there was only a niche interest in Mexican art and traditions, but even in those few short years the fascination with these creations has skyrocketed. Pop culture has embraced the "Day of the Dead" celebrations, with films like "The Book of Life" and "Spectre" all increasing the buzz. We always try to bring some skulls back from Mexico, and these are among the best we've ever had.
They were made by Reynaldo, an artist working in Cuernavaca. We have bought skulls from Reynaldo before, although they were glazed whereas this batch has a matt finish. He moulds the skulls from balls of clay, fires them, and then hand paints them.
We sell the skulls as ornaments and curiosities, though it's important to note they are not really a "touristy" item - they are definitely the kind of thing you would see in a Mexican home. Mexicans have (in general) a different attitude to mortality than we do here in the UK - life is seen as more ephemeral, but definitely something to be enjoyed and celebrated. When death comes, the focus is on positive, uplifting events rather than gloomy, downbeat funerals. This can be jarring to our eyes, but there's certainly an argument it's a healthier way of looking at life.
We always love to see the skulls going to a new home. Each one is unique, and we always sell out quickly. We'll be trying to source another batch in time for the autumn.
One of our favourite states in Mexico is Nayarit, which stretches from the coastal resort of Puerto Vallarta up to the borders of Sinaloa and Mazatlan. It takes in amazing hidden beaches, jungle thick with wild animals and exotic fruit, and vast expanses of open desert. It's probably the place in Mexico we've spent most time in and where we feel most at home. It also has a mysterious, almost spiritual air, perfectly exemplified by the Huichol people who call Nayarit their home.
The Huichol are a proud, extraordinary people with an incredible heritage and history. They also produce some quite stunning pieces of art, inspired by the visions they experience having eaten peyote, a type of hallucinogenic cactus. This is not a kind of "turn on, tune in, drop out" vibe, however - the Huichol see taking peyote as an intrinsic part of their cultural and religious identities. It is not something they do lightly.
The results are staggering. We visited the Tanana Huichol Gallery in Sayulita, a fair trade organisation that supports a school and permaculture projects in the Huichol homelands. The range of incredible jewellery was a joy to see, though sadly due to exchange rates and the length of time it takes to make each piece, it wouldn't have been cost-effective for us to sell any in the shop.
When we got to Mexico City we were delighted to find a project inspired by the Huichol, giving their designs a modern twist. Ulises works with people living with AIDS in Guanajuato who ould otherwise struggle to find work. The designs are contemporary takes on Huichol designs (without the drugs). They use delica beads and Swarovski crystals to achieve the results, which we loved. The first capsule collection is available online now and we hope to be able to showcase more Huichol Harmony designs during the year.
Of all of the new products we discovered on our trip to Mexico in January 2017, probably the range that stands out the most is our "Fantastic Beasts" - surreal ceramic figures made in a style known as "barro betus." They weren't easy to find, but we were glad we made the effort.
We only had two days in Tonala, a suburb of Guadalajara famous for arts and crafts, so we had to move quickly to work out whether anything was going to be right for us. Most of the shops were selling much larger pieces - chairs and tables, floor to ceiling sculptures and the like - and while these were incredible they were not practical for us to bring back in our cases!
On our second afternoon however, we found some amazing animal pieces tucked away at the back of a furniture shop. Crazy colours, psychedelic designs, surreal combinations of animals - right up our street! The pieces were signed "Ortega," and the helpful shopkeeper explained as she was wrapping our items that the figures were known as "barro betus." A quick Google search revealed that we were in fact only a hop and skip away from the village where the Ortega family had their workshop - and a quick taxi ride saw us standing outside the door!
We were welcomed by Eleuterio Ortega, fourth generation of craftspeople who create the incredible designs. The courtyard workshop was home to further members of the family, along with a good number of wandering cats and chickens. We saw pieces at all stages of the design process, some newly sculpted, others being fired in the open kiln, while the finished shapes were hand painted as part of the final stages. A true family business and a truly amazing sight to see.
As the pieces are ceramic we were limited to what we could bring back - we chose some amazing whistles, frighteningly beastly masks, and some other cool designs which we have online now. We hope to be able to continue our relationship with the Ortega family for many years to come - for now, we are proud to be what we think is the only outlet in the UK for their fantastic beasts!
We hope you all had a peaceful, relaxing Christmas! We enjoyed having some down time and focussing on the important things in life. Now that we're back in the shop, our minds turn to the seemingly inevitable prospect of "the sales." But if we're focussed on fair trade, how can we offer sale reductions? Wouldn't that mean that the producers were losing out?
The simple answer is no - we always ensure that our producers are paid fairly. For most of the suppliers we work with, we will pay for the goods at the point of order - so the artisans have the cash before they even send us the products. So why on earth would we offer discounts on lines we've already paid for?! There are three good reasons...
Firstly, we want to encourage people into the shop and to visit our website at what would otherwise be a very quiet time of year. By offering sales discounts we can tempt people to shop with us who might not normally visit us - thereby hopefully gaining us repeat customers during the year. Secondly, we want to free up as much cash as we can at a quiet time of year to allow us to invest in new stock. This means we can keep the shop looking fresh and support a diverse range of different projects. And lastly, there's a simple issue of space - if we want to be able to showcase some of the amazing things we hope to bring back from Mexico, we need to have the shelf space to do it.
So when you see us offering sales or discounts you can be clear in the knowledge that we are never squeezing our suppliers on price - so you can grab a bargain with a clear conscience!
It's a funny week. the week before Christmas, especially somewhere like Hay on Wye. If we were in a big city we'd be gritting our teeth for a huge Christmas Eve Saturday, but given how busy we've been over the past fortnight my instinct is that most shoppers are ahead of the game this year. We'll see! In any event, there is a lot to do, and it's a good time to look forward to what this Christmas season has taught us.
We seem to be increasing the market for our delicious Zotter chocolate exponentially - we ordered more than ever this year, and yet we're still close to selling out! We'll have more fantastic flavours in for Easter.
It's also become clear that t-shirts are not just for "t-shirt weather." They make great gifts all year round, and our new range from Glower have proved incredibly popular. Look out for more styles from them next year, along with an attempt at some designs of our own!
Finally - I know we're in the town of books and everything, but book sales this year have been phenomenal. Several customers have commented that they like the fact that our book range reflects the rest of the shop - ethically minded, outward looking towards the rest of the world, and thoughtfully conscious. We'll do our best to expand the range in 2017.
Before we get into that we're looking forward to our trip to Mexico - more of which next week! We're planning to keep our Instagram feed updated while we're out there, so stay tuned for that.
It only remains for me to wish you a very Happy Christmas from all of us at Eighteen Rabbit - thank you for your interest and taking the time to read our blogs week in week out. We hope that we can continue to keep you entertained in the year ahead!