Any craftsman who has taken it upon himself to refine his work has heard this statement. The comment usually implies that one is no longer “just a craftsman” and has ascended to the rank of “artist”. It is almost as if one goes to bed a craftsman, and wakes up an artist. It is as though there is an invisible line, a threshold that exists between function and art.
As descendants of Greek thought, we Westerners regard almost everything in a compartmentalized, lineal fashion. Life is considered a progression of events with a beginning and end with crisp lines separating stages. But is this an accurate way to think about function and art? Our culture often encourages us to choose one over the other, but whenever we draw a line of distinction between the two, we inadvertently create tension…one over against the other.
So what are we to do with functional art?
It has been said that if the craftsman can make a plain saddle (or bit, or bosal, etc.) look like a work of art; he/she has achieved a high level of success. Let’s consider for a moment what goes into a plain piece that would make it appear to be a work of art. In order for parts to fit together well, one has to master the unique properties of the medium (leather, metal, rawhide) and have a well developed eye for the lines of the piece. Any work that is architecturally well-designed is pleasing to the eye. The piece has the correct proportion, balance and composition… terms that are used within the art world, but interestingly are found in the realm of function as well. A bit that has the proper ratios, weight, and diameters would be functionally well-balanced. But it would likely also be aesthetically pleasing even if it were undecorated. “Balance” is a word that can be used to describe both function and art, and it can be very difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
A case can be made that an aspect of the beauty of a piece of cowboy gear is its ultimate usability. How often have we looked at a saddle and it seemed to beckon us to step across it and ride off. There was something “right” about the shape of the seat, the line of cantle, the relationship of the front of the saddle to the seat. These are aspects of a saddle that exist (or not!) regardless of decoration. Simply put, there is a strong connection between function and art when the two are blended successfully. In fact, the best work shows a seamless integration of the two: the craftsman has kept both in balance, taking care that one would not swallow up the other.
The members of the TCAA are both craftsmen and artists (even though they may not be comfortable calling themselves artists… but that’s another story). Their ultimate goal, whether it is work made for an exhibit or for the cowboy down the road, is to make beautiful pieces that are both durable and functionally sound.
I have been building and collecting saddles, spurs and bits since the 1970s and have been a full time bit and spur maker since 1988. Most of my work is California style bits and spurs. I do restoration work on higher quality items for a very few collectors and I work as a consultant to individuals who are just starting or have large collections and have questions. I have done a lot of research on bits and spurs and have a large collection of books that have come out through the years since I was able to purchase was ‘Old West Antiques and Collectibles’ back in 1979. Books have helped very much but I feel that restoration has helped more than anything. When trying to match the work, tools had to be made to reproduce the marks of the piece. In doing this, I have discovered many things in the construction of the old work. It differs from what we do now because we have so many tools that they did not have which allows us to take our work to new levels. Collecting high quality contemporary work is gaining in popularity. This is primarily due to groups that p
romote high quality contemporary work such as the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA) and the Texas Spur Makers Association. The TCAA also focuses on the education of makers, collectors and public so that they can identify quality work.
Some of my most asked questions are: “How do I know if a spur is contemporary or an original old piece?” “Is this an original G. S. Garcia?” “Is this a Mexican spur?” G.S. Garcia is being marked on contemporary pieces coming out of Mexico for the J. M. Capriola Company in Elko, Nevada. Capriola legally has the right to mark the pieces which makes it harder to identify if the piece is old or contemporary. With just a little practice and education, learning what to look for is easy. I will attempt to give you a little advice in what to look for but remember, there are exceptions to every rule.
First thing to look for is how the shank is connected to the band. This is one of the easiest ways to identify the work. If the work is an old California piece it will most likely have a riveted shank. That means the shank has been riveted on the band by filing a square hole in the band to fit the square end of the shank. The square end of the shank and hole in the band is made that way to keep the shank from twisting. The shank should fit the band well with a visible line around the point where the shank meets the band. If the piece is contemporary or from Mexico it will most likely have been welded where the shank meets the band and have a shoulder that is visible.
Some of the California pieces and contemporary pieces are forged from one piece of steel and the shank on those spurs will be a crisp 90′ angle where it meets the band with no dividing line and in most cases will not have a shoulder as a welded shank. Mike Morales made one piece spurs as did Phillips and Gutierrez. There are a very few makers out there now that make ‘one piece’ spurs. Another thing to look for is the way the piece was inlaid. Most of the old California and U.S. contemporary makers chisel out their silver cavities and set their silver by undercutting the edge of the cavity and hammering the silver into the cavity, while in Mexico they use a very thin piece of silver and just undercut the steel for the edges of the silver with no cavity and burnish the silver in place causing it to spread smoothly and look like an inlay. They use tools to engrave that do not dig as the old gravers did so that it does not cut through the silver. The way to tell the difference is to look at the stripes on the edge if there are any and the inlay itself. On an old piece, the silver inlay will be flush with the steel (if it has not yet rusted under the silver) and the stripes will also be flush with the steel and you may be able to see the undercut. On a Mexican piece, the silver inlay will be very slightly above the steel and on the stripes you will see a chisel cut on each side with the silver again slightly above the steel.
The engraving will also tell a lot about the spur but engraving is easy to copy. The old California engraving was usually done with the same tools that were used to cut the cavities. Most of the engraving on the old pieces looked something like this. Note the chisel marks are done with a flat chisel leaving a long cut to the outside.
Now on most of the Mexican, and a good part of contemporary work, the engraving is done bright-cut style using modern tools. One of the easiest ways to tell old engraving from Contemporary is the use of a liner. A liner is a graver that makes uniform side-by-side lines on the piece engraved. The liner is used for shading in bright cut engraving, remember, the old engraving was done with what tools they used to cut the silver cavity. Old work will not have a liner because they were not readily available. Some of the master level makers now are going to single point or firearms style engraving which is different than the old way as only a square graver is used and not the flat graver or chisels. The difference is in the way the gravers cut the material.
With these few pointers you should be able to tell the difference but nothing takes the place of experience. I suggest those interested take the time to buy a few books, look at as many different pieces of work as possible and ask questions of the makers working now. Times have changed and makers are now more willing to answer questions and explain the differences in work. Ask someone trustworthy what they think before buying a piece you are not sure of. Do not be in a hurry to buy that G. S. Garcia from the old cowboy that has had them since the teens if they just don’t look right. It takes a while to get an ‘eye’ for engraving patterns and such but it is better to wait until you are sure than to just buy a piece because it might get away if you do not buy it right now. There are too many people out there who are more than willing to sell something they know is not right and once you buy it, it is yours. There are also a lot of people out there who would be glad to help and answer questions. Be careful, study as much as you can, and do not be afraid to ask lots of questions. That is how we learn.