Stylish, handcrafted, and highly collectible, rodeo belt buckles are the crown jewels of Western wear—and a show-stopping way to hitch up your jeans.
The rodeo belt buckle images shown in the magazine are not available online. Back issues of the April 1996 edition of Texas Monthly can be ordered by contacting Back Issues.
KEEP YOUR PANTS ON, COWPOKE—preferably with a belt crowned by a big ol’ silver rodeo-style buckle. For decades the ornate, Texas-size buckle has been a de rigueur accessory not only for rodeo performers but also for other well-dressed Westerners. Its popularity, like its flamboyance, has raised the buckle a few notches above other forms of cowboy ornament: conchos, bolos, collar tips, spurs.
The trophy buckle became a favored prize for rodeo performers during the twenties. The sheer size of the buckle may have sprung from a short-lived vogue for “bronc buster” or “kidney” belts—extra-wide leather bands that were believed to provide better back support than thin ones did. The rounded corners lessened the chance of the buckle bruising its owner or causing a snag. Most rodeo buckles were solid silver and engraved with scrolls, flowers, and vines. They were often inspired by Mexican motifs and overlaid with solid-gold Longhorns, steer heads, and the like. The precious metal a buckle contained made it eminently hockable, should a rider’s fortunes fall.
Western silversmiths had long crafted the more common style of buckle, termed a Ranger set, which consisted of a horseshoe buckle, one or two keepers (loops that secure the belt overlap), and a decorative tip. Soon the craftsmen expanded their wares to include trophy buckles, stamping the undersides with their initials or a distinctive mark. The best-known maker was Edward Bohlin, a crony of Tom Mix’s and of Buffalo Bill Cody’s, who established his Los Angeles-based business in 1922. Hollywood, of course, loved the look of big buckles and other flashy parade gear; it remained popular in both rodeo and cinema throughout the heyday of the western. Actors and singers such as Rex Allen and Tex Ritter readily adopted the style. Like embroidered Western shirts, which were also popularized by singers and stars, rodeo buckles were soon widely embraced by fans as well.
Today cowboy wannabes from San Antonio to Seattle hook up shiny new megabuckles every day, and the value of the vintage article is (like a good ol’ boy’s gut) ever-expanding. The 28 buckles showcased here belong to Austinite Robert Brandes, one of the first collectors to recognize and promote the buckle as a distinctive and unappreciated Western art form (see “The Inside Story,”. It’s a cinch you’ll like what you see.