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 Orange Coast Magazine, February 2015

Story by Martin J. Smith, Photos by Priscilla Iezzi

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 music legends.

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, Editor-In-Chief,

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 ride ...

Q:  Still, 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