Published: April 24, 2014 Updated: 4:36 p.m.
Fullerton craftsman carves cowboy flair
Gary Mathis carves through pure sterling silver with
Curlicue flower flourishes slowly appear as he cuts
across the metal surface using a mixture of hand and
pneumatic-assisted tools. His steady hands are guided
only by a faint pencil outline.
“An old friend of mine told me, ‘The sign of a true
artist is somebody who can fix their screw-ups,’” Mathis
said. Serious errors can be costly, especially when
working on a silver canvas.
After hours of drawing lines and etching, Mathis is
left with a gleaming silver belt buckle. The lines of
each petal in the depicted flowers are beautifully
beveled, and fine textures give definition. He’ll sell
the buckle for thousands of dollars on his website,
Most of Mathis’ customers are cattle-ranch owners and
cowboy enthusiasts in Texas and Florida.
“You know what’s ironic?” Mathis said, holding up a
completed belt buckle. “This is a $7,000 belt buckle.
You are buying a $7,000 belt buckle to hold up a $25
pair of Wranglers. Sometimes it amazes me.”
He sells hundreds of decorative buckles a year. For
some, they are flashy cowboy fashion. For others, the
Western jewelry piece becomes a family heirloom.
Over the years, Mathis has become a talented
“Selling buckles is just like selling a car … it’s
all about the add-ons,” Mathis said. “Let’s do something
unique to this buckle that says, ‘This is a custom
While most designs are influenced by the requests of
his customers, Mathis has a folder full of belt buckle
sketches. His designs include wildlife, cowboys, Indians
Mathis – a self-proclaimed cowboy – works from the
garage of his Fullerton home. He has more than 50 years
of experience working with leather, repairing saddles
and training horses.
During the holidays, Mathis’ worn hands etch, cut and
stamp for 16 hours a day. Coffee and cigars keep him
going late into the night.
Mathis’ materials aren’t cheap. The craftsman buys
silver for more than $2,000 a sheet. After hours of
engraving, Mathis’ workbench is covered in
precious-metal shavings. Every speck is recycled, he
Once, Mathis sold a belt buckle set made entirely of
22-karat gold. It was worth $22,000 – Mathis’ most
valuable project yet.
Between metalworking projects, Mathis hand-carves
belts and fashions custom saddles. His belts go for more
than $300, and his saddles for more than $3,000. The
belts are carved and sewn from thick strips of deep
brown leather. Using dozens of stamps, bevels and
knives, Mathis carves intricate images of acorns,
flowers and leaves.
Occasionally, he will will use more exotic materials
such as snakeskin.
“How would you like to run into this snake?” Mathis
said as he rolled out a 16-foot python skin to be used
in a future project.
While Mathis is busy with orders, the craftsman says
he is working himself out of business. While his website
garners traffic from new customers, Mathis’ sales have a
98 percent attrition rate.
“How many $600 buckles and how many $300 belts does
one customer want?” Mathis said. “My belts last for 20
years. My buckles last for generations.”
While demand is still strong for his products, Mathis
believes he is part of a dying breed. Few young people
are learning how to carve leather, create saddles and
“I don’t see this as something that is going to
intrigue somebody coming out of college,” Mathis said.
“Everybody wants to be technology-based. This is old
Contact the writer: 714-704-3754 or
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