Fourteen years ago I took a leap of faith and began my own bit and spur business. The word on the street was there were far easier ways to make a living and I had no idea whether I would be able to exclusively support a family this way or not! Thankfully I have, and my wife is able to stay at home with our two little girls and help run the office end of the business. But, this has not come without its challenges and over the years I’ve worked through some important lessons that I would like to share with you.
I was accepted into the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, TCAA, in 2004, and it became of the utmost importance to manage a successful business. A good portion of my year is spent producing for our TCAA show with no guarantee of a sell! Also, the interest in my work started to increase which led to the waiting list in my order book to be further out. It was at this time the differences between a bit and spur maker and a silversmith were brought to my attention.
I was very insecure breaking out on my own, so to help with the fear I accepted silversmithing jobs like trophy buckles, ranger buckle sets, saddle silver, conchos, etc. All good silversmithing projects, but all a very different process than forging a mouthpiece or filing the inside of a bit shank. Everything from the design to the execution of the project was totally different from my thoughts as a bit and spur maker. The only thing in common was the engraving, which for me was a way to cover up my lack of experience as a fabricator with silver. The properties of silver are different than steel and I was certainly in a tailspin trying to execute the construction to the same quality as my bits and spurs. I was spinning around the shop getting dizzy wasting time to become the best bit and spur maker I could be. For every day I spent silversmithing, I wasted a day bettering my skills with the bits and spurs.
My order book had a 4 1/2 year back log at one time. So as I took more silversmithing orders, I was causing a dissatisfied following and a confused market as well. Not only did people have to wait excessively long, but some considered me a bit and spur maker while others saw me as a silversmith. As a TCAA member I was exposed to real silversmiths that educated me on the difference of the two trades. People don’t differentiate between the two. They only see my skills as a designer and engraver and think of a project that they would enjoy and ask me to create it for them. You can’t blame someone for that. It is my job to explain the difference and the reasons for having to choose.
There was plenty of work to keep me busy even if my orders were cut in half. I made the choice to focus my attention on my bits and spurs. As easy as that sounds, it wasn’t. The very first order I turned down was an $8,000 buckle set for a large collector. My wife thought I had lost my mind! The bank account wasn’t exactly busting at the seams and passing on an opportunity like this appeared to be a mistake. This could be one of the smartest decisions I have made.
As I moved through the order book and came to the silversmithing orders, my customers were given the option of a steel buckle decorated with silver and gold. This process matched my bits and spurs and since I chose to work only with steel architecture I couldn’t ask a silversmith to create a steel buckle for those that wanted steel. Buckles aren’t my favorite thing to make but at times it’s a nice change. Some were indifferent to the base material and some wanted a nice sterling buckle. For those that wanted silver I directed them to silversmiths. People that focused their time on silversmithing just like I have with the bits and spurs.
By turning down the silversmithing projects, my back log went from 4 1/2 years to 2 1/2 years. I have been able to concentrate on my skills as a bit and spur maker. I wasn’t giving my profession the respect it deserved and I was disrespecting the silversmithing industry. Silversmithing isn’t only about quality engraving, it is just one of the few similarities between the two trades. Therefore, neither industry was benefitting from my efforts. A good example of focus is Apple, Inc. They decided to make a phone. The key is one phone, not many different phones. Sure, Apple has the resources to fill many different markets with multiple phones, but they chose to focus on building the best phone they could. I would have to say that their efforts have been successful to this point.
Choosing to focus has allowed me to do a better job of promoting the bits and spurs as well. I have a close friend that told me, “You are only as good as the last job you did.” People talk about the last thing I made. My bits and spurs are what I want them talking about.
As I try and create a market for high end bits and spurs, I don’t need people confused. They need to see my focus and commitment. It has been tough selling the super high end bit or pair of spurs for several reasons. I believe one is simply the“““““`he lack of visual impact they have compared to a saddle. Take a saddle and bit that are comparably priced, the saddle tends to sell before a bit because the size of a saddle is much more impressive. The amount of skill, education, commitment, etc. are no different between the two craftsman. Education is part of the solution. Awareness and appreciation for bits and spurs has to grow. If I am spending half my time doing something else I don’t believe this will change. You don’t find many saddle makers building boots too. It’s all leather, but very different just like it is in my situation.
I’m not here to tell other bit and spur makers that they can’t occasionally enjoy creating a sterling buckle. What I am saying is I believe in order to truly become good at something one must focus their attention. Treat the trade as a profession. By choosing to be a professional bit and spur maker, hopefully I can help the trade reach new levels of appreciation and excellence.