Story by Alex Newman
TOLEDO, SPAIN–Mariano Zamorano has a 12-inch dagger blade gripped in his right hand as he guides it with his left over a rough stone rotating on a spinning wheel. He shifts and sparks fly up and out, illuminating the darkened room. Then he moves with the blade to the next stone, and then another and another, each finer than the last, to whir away the layer of black left by the flames it was forged with.
Zamorano learned this method from his father, also Mariano, who learned it from his father, another Mariano. After almost 50 years of making the centuries-old and storied Toledo sword, he is nearly done with what will be a gleaming silver and golden-hilted masterpiece – marked with the emblem of his family and the famous city that thousands travel every year to see.
“Every sword I make is unique,” a fair-skinned, sandy-haired Zamorano said through a translator on a quiet Saturday afternoon in his workshop. “There are always variations – a different detail or material somewhere.”
His shop, Mariano Zamorano Fábrica de Espadas, set in a quiet corner off the center of town, has passed from five generations of fathers to sons. Today, he is one of the last authentic sword makers in Toledo – a city south of Madrid, in the Castile-La Mancha region of Spain – where warriors, kings and noblemen would go for the weapons they carried into war. At 63, though, Zamorano is getting ready to retire. And while his son, also a Mariano, an aeronautical engineer, is able to replace his father, he is not willing to take over the business. And that means after 150 years, the world-renowned sword shop will likely close down.
A city of stone, artisans of steel
For centuries, the Toledo sword was sought after for its strength and durability. Its blade was made from “Toledo steel,” a layered metal with an iron core, which gave the sword flexibility without breaking. From the 15th to the early 17th centuries, a Toledo sword marked a warrior’s superiority, and today, these reclaimed treasures remain on display in armory museums around the world.
“Toledo made its name in blades,” said Elizabeth LeTourneau, 50, sales manager of Starfire Swords, a Spencer, NY-based manufacturer and purveyor. She has been making swords in her own shop for the past 30 years. She also owns an authentic Toledo blade.
“This was a skill that was passed down in families from one generation to the next,” LeTourneau added. “The blades that came out of Toledo were easily distinguishable because of their quality and durability. There was a lot of artistic talent that went into it – it was a beautiful marriage of form and function.”
In the 18th century, as swords’ popularity began to wane with the rise of the firearm, King Charles III established the city’s first mass-production facility, the Royal Arms Factory, which united the various sword-making guilds from around the city.
“The [weapons] industry was gone by the end of the 17th century,” said Richard Kagan, professor emeritus of history at Johns Hopkins University. “But by the 1800s the arms factory was a success.” Kagan has written extensively about 16th and 17th century Spain.
That shift marked an end to the culture of hand-made sword-making that remains to this day. “Toledo is no longer an industrial city or an artisanal city,” said Kagan. “It became a tourist city, which changed the whole character of it.”
Now, the majority of swords in Toledo are produced in factories, and merchants have capitalized on the city’s past by selling replicas of some of history’s most famous swords, both real and fictional. Gift shops sell blades that are supposed to be from the Crusades and the Reconquista, as well as swords from the wildly popular Lord of the Rings movie trilogy – which boasts two authentic Toledo-made swords – and the Game of Thrones series on HBO.
But for those looking for a blade true to Toledo’s history, Mariano Zamorano is ready to receive.
“This is the only proper place with real craftsmanship,” said Dominik Jackisch, 26, standing in the doorway where the display room opens up into the workshop. “All the other places had toy weaponry.” Jackisch traveled to Zamorano’s from Bonn, Germany. He was focused on a display of a dozen or so swords, arranged like a fan in a rack.
He wasn’t the the only international visitor there. James Park, 23, and Bianca Siu, 22, from East Brunswick, New Jersey, came to Toledo on a day trip while traveling through Spain. Park had read about the shop online, and came to buy a kitchen knife for his mother and a pocketknife for his brother. “Everyone online said he was the best,” Park said.
A family tradition in peril
Mariano Zamorano Fábrica de Espadas is in what were royal stables 500 years ago when Toledo was the capital of Spain. The family’s first shop was on the banks of the Tagus River – which surrounds the medieval stone city on three sides – but it moved generations ago.
Now off the cobblestoned Calle de la Ciudad, through a narrow, shaded passageway just up from the exquisite Toledo Cathedral, the workshop and store are almost anonymous in a corner between a gift shop that sells replica swords and a restaurant. At the front is a narrow display room where customers struggle to pass each other and not knock any swords off the wall. The workshop rooms are in the back, one for forging, one for polishing, one for crafting the hilt. They’re all kept dark to blunt the heat it takes to forge and polish, yet Zamorano and his craftsmen still work with sweat plastering their hair to their foreheads.
Zamorano no longer makes his blades out of Toledo steel, and instead uses carbon steel. Once swords became purely ceremonial, there was no need for the strength that the Toledo steel was famous for. But other than that, the process remains the same.
To begin, he cuts the steel from rods he gets from a supplier in Madrid and heats it up in the forge, which is an open flame in a 6-foot wide stone pit filled with coal. Once it’s blistering hot, he runs the blade over one of his polishing wheels to give it a white coating, then he plunges it back into the forge. Then he waits. It has to hit 1000 degrees and turn bright yellow before he can handle it again – a lesson he first learned at the hip of his father when he was just a small boy.
When it cools, Zamorano dips the blade in car oil. He repeats the process, running the metal over the wheel, then the forge to heat it to pale yellow – this time the color of hay – which occurs at 200 degrees. He cools it in water. Now the steel is malleable without breaking, and he can shape it into a blade using a mallet against an anvil.
After it’s shaped and he polishes the piece, what’s left to do is assemble the hilt. He slides the brass guard and wooden grip wrapped in leather on to the end. Then he secures it by drilling tiny holes in the grip and soldering them in place with molten steel. Finally he welds on the pommel, which is the ornamental knob at the top.
One sword takes at least 10 hours to complete and costs anywhere from $100 to $4,000. The most special ones, the custom work – like the $3,000 swords with a gold-plated hilt designed by a French airline pilot, or the quartz hilt commissioned by a Catholic church in Madrid – can take up to 60 hours to make.
“When you’re making the same sword, you sometimes get into a rhythm and become comfortable,” Zamorano said. “But when you have a new design, it’s a challenge, and there’s a sense of pride in making something new.”
His most recent joy is a sword he designed for his niece’s communion, the blade inscribed with the phrase “I am Lucia. Long live Lucia.” The family used it to cut the cake at her party.
And, though it clearly pains him to say it, Zamorano too sells replica swords and knives, in addition to his handcrafted works. He must in order to sustain himself between the customers who seek the real thing.
Even though the future of Zamorano’s shop is not clear, its patriarch remains at peace about it for now. He plans to retire in four years, and, in the absence of his 36-year-old son’s interest, he would sell the store to craftsmen who were committed to upholding the tradition that his family has preserved and protected for all these years. But only, he repeats, if that were the case.
“Disgracefully, all the swords left in Toledo are either industrial or made in China,” he said. “This is what has broken the Toledo sword.”
As new customers squeeze into his shop, eyeing the swords hanging from the wall, Zamorano excitedly guides them to one he has made – branded with an “M.Z. Toledo” on the top of the blade. His blue eyes sparkle, his hands fly around, marked by the loss of two fingers severed 40 years ago while he was working on a piece. But then he settles them on the hilt of a beautiful example of his work.
The golden pommel of this particular sword is shaped like the head of an eagle, with etched feathers extending out to make the guard look like wings.
“My swords don’t represent the culture,” said Zamorano. His pride – in the sword, in his family, in the Toledo tradition – is evident. “They have maintained it.”