Skip to main content

The Buyable Past

June 2024
1min read

Cowboy Buckles

The American cowboy, a bristly breed, had his image carefully groomed by early film studios, and one costumer’s touch, the ornately engraved silver belt buckle, became a staple of Western wardrobes. Though they earned their fame on the movie screen, cowboy buckles are in fact part of a real-world tradition of ornamental metalworking. They began to appear around 1900, when buckles tended to resemble those used by the military.

A 1940s three-piece buckle set
 
beal’s cowboy buckles2005_6_16

The American cowboy, a bristly breed, had his image carefully groomed by early film studios, and one costumer’s touch, the ornately engraved silver belt buckle, became a staple of Western wardrobes. Though they earned their fame on the movie screen, cowboy buckles are in fact part of a real-world tradition of ornamental metalworking. They began to appear around 1900, when buckles tended to resemble those used by the military. Many Western buckles are essentially metal plates, often ovals or rectangles, and they can be large indeed. Others, probably based on those worn by Texas Rangers, come in sets: the buckle itself, one or two “keepers” (loops to prevent the belt’s tip from hanging down), and a cover for the tip itself.

A buckle presented as a rodeo trophy
 
beal’s cowboy buckles2005_6_16b

One eminent Western silversmith was coaxed into the buckle business by a film cowboy. In the early 1920s Tom Mix admired the saddles of Edward H. Bohlin and urged him to fabricate silver and leather items in Hollywood. Bohlin’s shop thrived for decades, and his clients included William S. Hart, Will Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, and even Ronald Reagan. Collectors covet work by Bohlin and such artisans as John McCabe, Bob Schaezlein, and Mike Srour. Richard Beal, a cowboy-buckle specialist, says that pre-1950 examples are the most desirable and that prices for good silver pieces start at about $300 or $400. Midrange items tend to fall in the four-figure bracket, and anything worth five figures is decidedly high-end. Along with age, gold detailing enhances value, as do superior craftsmanship and a connection to a famous person, often a rodeo star who took the piece home as a trophy. Expert engraving is mandatory, so look for gracefully curving cuts with uniformity of width and depth.

—David Lander Resources

A Mexican-made example from the 1940s
 
beal’s cowboy buckles2005_6_16a

Richard Beal’s Web site ( www.bealscowboybuckles.com ) includes pictures of the vintage items in his inventory; prospective customers can contact him at richard@bealscowboybuckles.com . You can see other striking examples, some for sale and some from the vault, at www.buckles.com, a site maintained by Robert Brandes, a leading collector. The Western Buckle , the first book dedicated to the subject, is crammed with sensational photos by its creator and publisher, David R. Stoecklein. If you’d like to win a prize buckle at auction, check out upcoming sales at High Noon, a Los Angeles house specializing in Western Americana ( www.highnoon.com , 310-202-9010).

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.

Donate