Custom silver and leather work, and their crafters, have been part of the western culture for more than a century. These two arts are as popular as ever, with their functional use and unique, fashionable nature striking the fancy of practical cowboys and western fashionistas, alike.
As long as cowboys have been around, boots, spurs, and tack are all part of what it takes to get the job done. With the best pieces being made from high-quality leather and silver, these two mediums are pliable enough to take whatever shape needed, yet rugged enough to long withstand the pressures they face.
While many think custom-made leather and silver pieces are a new age creation, they have in fact been around for the last three centuries. Some of the American West’s earliest cowboys have owned gear from makers like G.S. Garcia, who was known for filling custom orders for cowboys across Nevada and sending them out for delivery via wagon.
While the shipping method has changed since then, today, the strong desire for a custom piece has not wavered. Cowboys and cowgirls still order bits, spurs and rawhide reins to their specific liking, but they are not the only people interested in sporting a piece of custom work.
These days it is not uncommon for a silversmith to go from engraving a set of spurs, to a wedding ring in the same day, or to see a leather maker’s workbench covered in purse patterns and saddle fenders. Regardless of if its purpose is for the ranch or for the runway, across the country, silversmiths and leather artisans are providing the western world with unique, one-of-a-kind pieces–proving that custom is King.
A current favorite custom piece among cowgirls and fashionistas are jewelry items, such as rings or pendants, that showcase the owner’s ranch brand, another long-standing western tradition.
“I want my product to be for the working, ranching gals out there who are just like me. Those who are proud of the agricultural lifestyle and appreciate a hard day’s work,” says Catie Kershner, who owns Kershner Custom Silver, and says those brand pieces are quite possibly her most commonly-ordered item. “Those custom-made brand pieces are a way to show they are proud of their heritage, culture, lifestyle and to me, it is so cool to be a part of creating that timeless piece for them.”
Kershner considers the designing of different layouts, engraving and setting stones to be what sets her apart from others in her craft.
“If you spend any time looking at silver work, leather work, or art you can pick out that maker’s style. I think people order and want my products because of the style I put into each of my pieces. Even if someone is making something similar, no one can ever recreate your style. That’s uniquely you.”
The idea of something being “uniquely you” is the reason that the trades of leatherwork and silversmithing are so popular. When crafters are able to combine the customer’s wants with their personal style of craftsmanship, they create an extension of the customer’s personality and a product that will be passed on to the next generation.
Rebekah Chamberlin, silversmith, and owner of The Winged Heart, echoes Catie’s sentiments. “Creative expression is as individual as our fingerprints, so the most unique aspect is the ‘me’ component in my work.”
Chamberlin is known for creating large pieces that incorporate a number of symbols, colors, and textures into a single piece, giving them an almost collage-like design. Her seven-year history as a bench jeweler, prior to designing custom pieces, has given her a well-trained eye for the difference between “not enough” and “a little too much”, leaving her pieces with the perfect amount of embellishment.
Though many may not know Triesta Langford by name, they are more than likely familiar with her work, as it graces the boards of Pinterest, the pages of magazines, and the likes of country celebrities such as Kacey Musgraves. The owner of Designs by Triesta says that she has been asked to make belts, bags, shoes, jackets, pants, tack, guitar straps, rope bags, and even luggage. Why such an endless list?
Western fashionistas know if they cannot find exactly what they are looking for in a store, then their favorite leather or silversmith can make it; and to top it off, they will never have to worry about showing up to an event wearing the same piece as someone else.
Langford claims her business motto is, “If you can dream it I can probably make it,” a confident, yet optimistic motto that helps keep her designs as adventurous as her personality. Drawing inspiration from Nudie Cohn and Manuel is what helps Langford live outside her design comfort zone.
“I try to design with their ‘have no fear’ style,” she says. “Usually it works, but on occasion, it doesn’t.”
That same adventurous nature is what sets apart the sister-duo of Rheanne Keller and Raelynn Wakely. These two and their business have seen large success, especially in the last year, after a pair of their custom tooled wedding heels went viral, setting the western fashion world on fire. But the girls behind RKLeather are quick to mention that tooling is not necessarily where their creative rush comes from.
“Leather is such a versatile medium that limiting it to strictly tooling leather takes away some of the fun. We never know where our ideas will take us, so we keep an open mind to everything that is available to us, incorporating new materials such as Angora, alligator and adding fringe, of course.”
Keller and Wakely find that the more artistic and imaginative a customer allows them to be, the more wow-factor they are able to provide a final product. The same goes for silversmith Preston Johnson, whose “off the wall” ideas attract custom order after custom order.
“I’ve made a solid silver engraved iPhone case, engraved scrolls at the bottom corner of pickup windows, engraved copper light switch plates, and most recently, an engraved baby wipe case for my Son.”
Although Johnson loves giving those common items a custom twist, he says his creative heart will always lie in building trophy items for the area’s best cowboys and cowgirls, because they tell a story of someone who worked hard and earned the opportunity to wear something no one else has.
“My favorite thing to build are those old school, small trophy buckles. Actually, any rodeo award. The kind that cowboys are fighting to win because no one else has one like it. When I look at my grandpa’s old NFR buckles, I have a great appreciation for the craftsmanship that went into them. I want to make something a cowboy will cherish and hand down to his kids and grandkids.”
Perfecting an Art
Just like the awards won by a rodeo athlete have their own tale, the craftsmen and women of these industries have their stories too, like that of Kasey VanHoose, owner of VanHoose Custom Leather.
“I got started in the leather business out of necessity I suppose. I grew up riding bulls and was hard on equipment so to speak and I needed a new pair of chaps and had a friend of mine (Jacky Heflin) that used to make boots and chaps,” VanHoose said. “He was nice enough to help me build a pair in his shop and I was hooked after that.”
VanHoose’s bull riding was not the only thing in life that took daily practice, who credits much of his current success to those who took the time to help him learn the craft.
“I was a very slow learner and if I hadn’t been so stubborn I wouldn’t have been able to eventually make a living at this. I worked in Oklahoma with Trey Craig who really taught me how to tool but it was always his patterns and finally, Brody Bolton taught me how to draw and develop my own style.”
Ten years after he started, VanHoose is making quite the name for himself amongst fashionistas across the west, as he was one of the first to build leather-tooled clear purses. These bags fashionably fit the requirements of stadium bag policies that are now commonly found upon entry at concerts, and large sporting events–meaning that a girl can still make a fashion statement without breaking the rules.
The learning process has been just as important for Jay and Sherri Chatfield, of Chatfield’s Jewelry, as the two have had each other to learn from in their journey of silversmithing.
“We’re a husband and wife silversmith team. We’ve been creating together in one form or another for about 25 years,” Chatfield said. “We’ve been so blessed both individually and as a couple, with the gift of creativity and a drive to succeed.”
The two work almost exclusively in sterling silver and turquoise, building some of the most breathtaking variety of pieces, from quirky heart-shaped pendants to giant cuffs, none lacking in craftsmanship or quality.
While VanHoose and the Chatfields have had others to guide them as they began their craft, the same isn’t said for Amanda Richardson, of HDWEST. Richardson first got into the leather painting business after a local western store contacted her, asking her to paint a pair of boots. At the time, Richardson was known for hand painting signs, so went to the store, assuming the owner wanted a pair of boots painted on a sign. When she got there, Richardson was handed an actual pair of cowboy boots.
“I left there not really knowing where to start. I did tons of research and not too many people were painting leather in those days, so information was tough to come by,” she says. “After some trial and error, I found the right paint to use and developed a method for getting the paint to adhere correctly. “I sort of winged it & eventually figured out my own way of doing things.”
Richardson credits her trial and error start in business to be the foundation for what is now the widely known spirit of HDWEST. Phone cases, backpack renovations, long-fringed clutches, and cuffs are just a few of the painted creations Richardson builds, with a style that is unmatched by any other maker out there today.