Southwest Buckles, Bolos and Beyond

The Chinese have record of belt buckles beyond utilitarian value from as far back as 2 B.C. Elsewhere, tombs of kings and pharaohs have been unearthed to reveal a cherished buckle or two. It isn’t new that decorative statements of status, prowess and fashion via the buckle have continued to develop style and collectibility through the centuries.

Here, in the relatively young American Southwest, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s, when the Spanish and Mexicans brought their silver folk art in the form of ornamental horse bridles and various other adornments to the Four Corners region, that Native American silverwork began to evolve from its simpler origins.

The skilled, industrious Navajo, Zuni and Hopi artisans soon developed their own distinctive designs and techniques for the beautiful style of the concha or concho (meaning “shell” in Spanish) belts. Decorated with silver shells from tip to tail, and the addition of turquoise and other ethnic accents, these belts heralded a distinguished Southwestern style.

Navajo silversmith

Navajo Silversmith and Concha Belt, photo by George Ben Wittick, 1883

During the Civil War, the military brought symbolic status to the buckle. And later, rodeos would award their champions with an expensive, hefty medallion for their belts.

The concha belt remains as popular now as it ever was. Its timeless appeal and design adaptability works with any fashion trend.


In the1930s, the Texas Ranger utilitarian holster and belt triggered the trend of belt tip-sets. The fashionable ranger tip-sets comprise the belt’s decorated aspects of buckle, one or two holder loops or keepers, and tip. Hollywood Westerns boosted the trend with the likes of John Wayne, Roy Rogers and other cowboys of the silver screen.

The Texas Rangers movie

Since the mid-Seventies, Santa Fe has been home to James Reid, whose name is synonymous with the highest quality tip-sets and a variety of jewelry accessories, and whose designs have fans the world over.

James Reid bw

James Reid

The story of James’ love affair with Southwest silver folk art began in the mid-Sixties – a time of radical change in the trends of society, culture and fashion. Santa Fe was, as it always has been, a hub for many traders from all over the United States. James was one who journeyed from Pagosa Springs, Colorado to Taos and Santa Fe on a regular basis to trade American Indian antiques, and his own creations in leather and silver.

A free spirit on a low budget, and in true hippie style, he drove, worked and slept in a rigged-out school bus, and later a utility van, complete with the addition of a protruding stove-pipe connected to a wood stove that ensured warmth against the chilly northern New Mexico nights. (I begged him for a picture of it, but he swears he no longer has one.) He laughs as he remembers the pine lath work on the interior that, although adding to the “funky” feel, made it a rolling fire hazard.

As he traveled around northern New Mexico, he gathered techniques from silversmiths and artisans. “With a few rudimentary tools, you can learn very quickly by watching and doing,” he says.


James continued his traveling lifestyle until 1974, when fate, destiny, or simple mechanics imposed a change. He set off to return to Colorado when his van/studio/home broke down. That seemingly inconvenient incident led to Santa Fe claiming James as one of its own.

His prolonged stay drew him to become immersed in the serious study of Southwest silverwork. Initially, his designs focused on the belt tip-sets. James saw the potential for extensive creativity in a field that even by the mid-Seventies remained relatively unexplored – and he enjoyed the artistic freedom it afforded. During this time, Southwest silverwork, along with many other Southwest and Native American fashion trends, experienced a renaissance, the popularity of which lasts to this day. James’ tip-set designs took off.


James Reid Tip Sets

A fun play on the theme are these colorful “wrist belts” of alligator leather with silver conchas.


Variety of JR unique Wrist Belts


Classic Southwest Design – Diamond Ray Wrist Belt-JRLTD

But belts were just the beginning for James. Ever since opening his first shop in 1974, James Reid designs have continued to evolve and include a variety of creative plays on traditional and contemporary themes in all jewelry and accessories for men and women.


James Reid. One-of-a-kind, hand-polished, turquoise beads with 18kt gold on leather.


Western Charm Bracelets and Silver Bead Necklaces

Another popular gem is the “bolo” tie. Since the mid 1800s, Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths have created artistic clasps to hold two ends of leather string in place with style. But the bolo tie has its own history.

The name “bola” (most often spelled and pronounced “bolo”) originates from the South American word “bola,” meaning “ball”.  A “bola” (also called a “boleadora”) was a weapon and later a herding tool used by South American cowboys. Weights were attached to the split ends of a long rope, which could be thrown, much like a lasso, to ensnare the target by tangling around its legs.


Argentinian Postcards of Gauchos using Bolas

Some sources say that the bolo tie trend was started in the 1940s when Arizona silversmith Victor Cedarstaff was riding his horse one day, and to prevent the wind from blowing his hat with its valuable silver-tipped hatband off, he drew the hatband down around his neck. His riding partner commented on it being a “nice looking tie.” Victor went on to create bolos and even patented the design. The bolo tie was also helped toward popularity by early Hollywood movies and television characters like Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and the Cisco Kid.  As of 1971, Arizona claimed the bolo tie as its official neckwear.  In 2007, New Mexico and Texas did the same.


James Reid Bolo Ties

It has been more than 38 years since James Reid surrendered to Santa Fe’s charms. In 1981, he opened a gallery on Palace Avenue, just steps from the Plaza, and has been there ever since.

Storefront JamesReid

James Reid Shop and Gallery at 114 East Palace Ave.

He continues to collaborate with as many as ten local Santa Fe jewelry artists to create refreshing, ornamental styles, and embellish utility with unique beauty.


The Great Western – James Reid Ltd

James Reid designs have established an iconic standard of their own, one of superior quality and a Santa Fe style of timeless sophistication donned by men and women world-wide. And the Southwestern theme remains integral to the inspiration of his modern designs.


Satin Link Chain, 18kt gold pendant with Sleeping Beauty turquoise and diamonds. Hanger is hinged for detachment, so that chain can be worn alone or with other pendants.

orion cufflinks-money clip-studs

Orion Money Clip, Cufflinks and Studs. Deep relief 18kt star in sterling.

It is fun to visit the gallery to see what new creations they have on display and the creative ways they continue to elaborate on the southwestern designs. Often, James is there and happy to share his extensive knowledge of the work that will help you gain appreciation for wearable art that bridges the Southwestern traditional with the contemporary.

For more information on James Reid Ltd please go to:






Outspire Hiking and Snowshoeing

Year-round, New Mexico offers numerous activities for outdoor enthusiasts and Santa Fe is home to many excellent tour guides.  As Santa Fe has captured the hearts and minds of many a transient soul, it’s interesting to learn about those who stayed, and who now guide others to special, secret spots and vast and varied vistas that haunt us till we return, time after time.

Since childhood, Karen Denison, owner of Outspire Hiking and Snowshoeing, couldn’t get enough of the great outdoors.

I was five years old when my dad deemed me safe to have along on his fishing trips, and I loved it – still do. Any and every chance I get to be outdoors in the forests, by rivers, on mountains, I’m there. It’s my first love.


Karen Hiking around Santa Fe Baldy

Originally from Ohio, Karen was a biologist at the time she first arrived in Santa Fe in 1986. Her husband Terry, a nuclear physicist, was hired for a four-year stint at Los Alamos National Labs. Karen recalls,

I was hired at a genetics lab in Santa Fe as a biologist. In the 70s and 80s, genetics was the sexy and hot thing to do. It was fascinating, sure, but it dragged me away from my intended trajectory of becoming a wildlife biologist. It would be 15 years before I’d be back doing what I love most.

When Terry’s four years were done, we looked at each other and said, “Why would we leave here?”

We had made some great friends, and we were having a blast! I continued to work at the Santa Fe lab, then applied to LANL also, and we stayed.

In my spare time, on weekends, I would help a friend with her fly-fishing store by teaching clinics and guiding tours. I loved it so much that it wasn’t long before I left LANL and became a full-time fly-fishing guide in 1997.

In 2004, when a new hiking tour company called Outspire started up in Santa Fe, Karen took the chance to expand her touring opportunities.

Outspire had just started up. I called the owners and asked them if they needed a guide and they said, “Sure!”  It was fabulous fun!

A couple of years later, the original owners decided to move away and I bought the company. Now I have four other guides who have all gravitated to this area years ago because they love it. It’s a chosen place on so many levels.”

Tent Rocks

Kasha Katuwe – Amid the halls of Tent Rocks

There are a broad variety of terrains and themes to Outspire’s excursions, among them hiking and snowshoeing and archeology and geology tours. They love introducing folks to what New Mexico has to offer and those things that distinguish it from other areas.

Pecos Wilderness - Outspire Hiking & Snowshoeing.

Pecos Wilderness

The thing about New Mexico’s outdoors is its accessibility and the endless options of places to go. I’ve been here almost 30 years and I still keep finding new nooks and crannies.

In many other places, the outdoors means a park, or a defined trail that you can’t step off, and if you do there’s a strong chance you’ll fall knee-deep into poison ivy. In New Mexico, yes, we have well-marked trails, but we also have more opportunities for a wilder experience, and visitors really appreciate that. There are so many places that newcomers wouldn’t know about, or be able to go to without some coaching. And we are always finding more places to explore. We have a lot of repeat guests who have been gratified by their experiences with us and they keep coming back – there’s always something new to show them.

In addition to many Santa Fe area locations, Outspire’s favorite locales include “secret spots” around the Abiquiu area, Jemez Mountains, and the Pecos Wilderness. They have special permits from the National Park Service, U.S Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and guidelines they follow to protect those special areas.

Outspire Snowshoeing

My guests and I don’t want to be in a car for hours, so if we do venture farther by road, we try to spend at least double the drive-time out in the wilderness for a fun and satisfying trek.

From childhood, Karen always thought she’d be a park ranger or wildlife biologist.

My first love has always been the outdoors. My first “real” job during college summers was as a park naturalist: leading hikes, giving workshops on tracking and plant identification, and teaching outdoor skills.  And here I am more than 30 years later, doing the same thing! What a circular path.

I get a lot of satisfaction out of being able to guide people to those places and experiences that help them to get away from everything they’re used to in their busy lives and simply BE with nature. Being an outdoor guide may be my second career, but it has always been my first love.

As the name and motto of the company suggests, Outspire draws you to your inspiration through your interaction with Northern New Mexico’s wild and dramatic outdoors.

Karen-OutspireGuestWalter Curchack

For more information on Outspire, and to begin your love affair with the New Mexico outdoors, go to:  or Call: (505) 660-0394.