“Did you find copper or did copper find you?” I ask Jonathan Beall, founder of the Mexico-based artisan copper cooperative, Sertodo Copper. “Let’s say we stumbled into each other,” he replies. “I was spending time in Mexico living on the severance package I’d received after the bubble burst at a dot-com, and trying to figure out what to do next.”
One day, something shiny by the side of the road caught Beall’s eye, and he pulled over. A man was selling copper vases. “When I picked up that first piece of copper—it was a hammered vase—it felt as though I had found something honest, something tangible…the copper felt sensual to me. All my life, I felt as if I had focused on the abstract and the theoretical, especially during my education, but here, holding the copper, here was something I could relate to.”
Although Beall admits he’d probably been aware of the vast Mexican copper industry (he’d visited the country many times beginning at age 12), finding copper at that moment in time was a revelation. He purchased all the copper pieces he could load into his truck—vases, bowls, platters—and returned to Austin. Initially, he took the same route as many new entrepreneurs do: selling goods to friends and family. But when Austin’s Word of Mouth Catering requested custom pieces for events, he identified a niche in the catering industry for copper presentation platters. Because the hospitality industry in Austin is robust, it wasn’t long before other catering companies expressed similar interests—each looking for unique serving pieces.
Soon, Beall returned to Santa Clara del Cobre, in Michoacán, Mexico, to buy more pieces. This time, his truck was so heavily laden with copper wares that the hubcaps blew off. And after several years of handling and admiring the unique metal pieces and making frequent trips to Mexico, he became more interested in the metaphysical aspects of copper. The more he learned, the more fascinated he became.
“There’s something about copper that resonates to a deep memory of the civilization process,” he says. “A copper knife was one of the earliest sales tools, and copper bowls have long been used in religious ceremonies and as a medium for communication to the spiritual realm. Because of its anticorrosive properties, copper has a strong relationship with water, and is therefore viewed as a stabilizer and a calming balance. Before plastic buckets, copper buckets were widely used.”
In 2000—armed with an ever-growing interest in expanding his knowledge of all things copper—Beall returned again to Santa Clara del Cobre, but this time, to apprentice with copper master Don Chema Esquivel. For six weeks, Beall hammered practice nails, and in the process, learned to swing a hammer. “The sign of a great master is that they make it look easy,” he says. “The masters talk about ‘breaking your wrist’—describing how the energy starts in your core and then moves out through your arm and your wrist like a whip.”
It was Beall’s second copper master, Don Maximo Velazquez, who finally taught him how to make copper pots. In total, the apprenticeship—including trips back and forth between Mexico and Austin—took about two years.
Today, Beall’s partners in the artisan copper cooperative—some of whom are family members of his two masters—use recycled copper materials to create copper pots, vases and platters. The copper scraps are milled in Michoacán, where they’re melted into sheets that can be hammered and shaped into new products. Beall consults on all aspects of the business, including design.
While the copper business—both online and off—keeps Beall busy, he says he defines success by the amount of time he has to play, and that currently includes experimenting with copper patinas and, every once in a while, swinging a hammer to make a copper bowl.
By Georgina O'Hara Callan • Photography by Dustin Meyer