Published: February 15th, 2015
Editor's Letter - From Martin J. Smith
I greet Gary Mathis of Gary's Custom Saddlery in
Fullerton, and my hand disappears into his like a car
entering a tunnel. His grip is as epic as his handlebar
mustache. Still, I watched those same hands move like
hummingbirds around the various workbench projects in
his garage, where for decades he has handcrafted custom
saddles, exotic-leather belts, and the kind of elaborate
silver buckles prized by Texas ranchers and country
His workspace is packed with hand tools-awls, knives,
hole punches, pliers, yardsticks-some passed down from
his grandfather. The house was his mother's. They moved
here in 1960, and he moved back in 1992 when she got too
sick to live alone. Everything in the dim room speaks of
love, care, dedication, and tradition. Mathis sweeps one
of his rough hands around the garage and says, "I've
been doing this since I was a teenager" -and thus lays
waste to the popular notion that America is a country
where nobody makes things anymore.
We wanted to celebrate local artisans such as Mathis,
in part to remind ourselves that, yes, America still
makes things of rare quality and beauty, things for
which you're likely to pay a premium. You'll find the
results of that search in our "Handmade in O.C."
feature, which begins on Page 94. So here's to Mathis
and all the other uncompromising souls who understand
that quality matters, and that there are no shortcuts
along the road to excellence.
Speaking of which, this is the first issue of Orange
Coast we've produced in nearly seven years without the
help of Jim Walters, our recently retired managing
editor. He, too, was a craftsman in the Mathis mold, and
we hope to honor him always by upholding the high
standards he set.
Contact the writer: Martin J. Smith,
GARY'S CUSTOM SADDLERY: Fullerton's Gary Mathis
builds his saddles using custom trees (frames), then
works the Grade-A hides with hand tools, creates the
silver conchas, and cuts and stitches the horn covering
from a single piece of leather.
Q: Who buys
a $12,000 saddle? A: Somebody who rides for hours at a
time, not somebody who spends a few minutes in an arena.
If you don't build a saddle right, it'll be unbalanced,
lay crooked, cause sores and back problems. A 20-minute
ride in a bad saddle won't hurt. But a five- or six-hour
that's expensive. A: The best analogy is, "Do you want
to drive a VW, or a Rolls Royce?" They're both cars.
Each of my saddles takes three to four months to build
right. I don't claim to be the best, but I am one of the
better ones, because I'm not one to cut corners.
Q: So is
the custom saddle business here booming? A: The horse
industry has moved out of Orange County to Murrieta,
Fallbrook, south, east. There's not a lot of local
people looking for my caliber of saddle. But it's OK.
The Internet came along, and now people find me.-Martin
J. Smith OC
© 2015 Orange Coast Magazine,
Permission kindly granted by the Orange Coast Magazine