It’s probably safe to say that even Henry Comstock—or George Hearst, John Mackay, Mark Twain, Julia Bullette or any of the myriad historical figures who descended upon Nevada’s historic Comstock Lode——ever dreamed of hanging something like the “Blue Diamond” on their waists. Not liable to make anyone blue, it’s a hand-filigreed sterling silver buckle set, hand-engraved and antiqued with 1.5 carats of radiated blue and yellow diamonds. Retailing for $9,500, it’s among the many hand-crafted products created by Comstock Heritage, which bills itself ad “America’s Oldest Western Silversmiths” and is based in Carson City, Nev.
“Really,” President James Stegman says of his company, “there weren’t any buckles made before us.” Then he breaks out laughing. But the boast isn’t quite all comical. After all, Comstock Heritage’s history dates more than a century, and few silversmiths, then and now, have earned a reputation that matches these artisans. The biggest surprise you’ll find at Comstock Heritage, Stegman says, is … well … Stegman. “I would have been voted in high school the least likely to work with my hands,” he says.
The company began in San Francisco in 1886 when J.C. Irvine partnered with a man named Jachens (his first name has been lost to history) and began making brass and silver conchos (and later badges) at the J.C. Irvine Company (later Irvine & Jachens) on Mission Street. In the 1920s, Christian Stegman bought the company, doing silverwork for saddles for Keyston Brothers and others until parade saddles fell out of vogue in the late 1950s. By 1971, Christian Stegman’s sons had divided the business, with Howard Stegman pushing silver buckles instead of badges and moving his company, rechristened Comstock Silversmiths, to Carson City. Irvine & Jachens, by the way, still makes badges outside of San Francisco.
In the ’70s, my dad was doing literally hundreds of buckles a month,” James Stegman says, “inexpensive rodeo buckles, good buckles, handmade 20-40-40-dollar wholesale buckles. It was something I never really thought I would do.”
Caught up in the Yuppie movement of the go-go 1980s, Stegman had no interest in following his father in the buckle-making business. Since age 7, he had planned on going to law school, and while attending the University of Washington, he worked for attorneys. But then he realized something: “It’s not the noble love of the law and justice. It’s a business, and it’s a hard business, and I thought, ‘You know, I can make this type of money doing something else.’”
In 1990 James Stegman moved his family back to Carson City and worked for his father, and soon began pushing his father to try more expensive looks, using gemstones and better materials. Three years later, he got the go-ahead and Comstock Heritage was relaunched.
“Basically what we did was take this rather iconic business and turn it into what we could understand,” Stegman says, “which is quality.” That quality has put Comstock Heritage jewelry in such high-end markets as Maida’s Belts and Buckles in Houston, Cry Baby Ranch in Denver, JW Cooper in New York, Augustina’s Leather in Carmel, Calif., and Bailey Stockman in Tokyo. That jewelry has even been used to accent custom cowboy boots created by Toronto-based Liberty Boot Company.
Yet that quality is blended with history. “Some tools we use date back to the late 1800s,” Stegman says. “We have some tools that made it through the San Francisco earthquake. We use a rolling mill by hand for buckle tongues that dates to the earthquake.”
And over the years, James Stegman learned something about himself. “I’m good at this,” he says. “It was really not something that I expected. I’d been so focused on making a living. You talk to a lot of artists, and they’ll tell you they always had those aspirations, and I didn’t. Not at all. So it really is strange.”
A self-styled “control freak,” Stegman touches almost every piece the company produces. And he finds no pressure in maintaining the company’s legacy. “What comes with it, actually, is a sense of serenity,” he says. “The company’s been around 120 years. I’m very confident in what we make.”
That serenity helps Stegman do what he has learned to do well. “I like to create new things,” he says. Like a $9,500 “Blue Diamond” buckle set.
Comstock Heritage jewelry can be viewed at www.comstockheritage.com.