February 1, 1998

Handmade buckles has held up as Boulder business for 30 years

BOULDER — Ever wonder where all those fancy belt buckles worn at the recent Stock Show are made?

Many come from R & R Buckles, located deep in the heart of Boulder.

For 30 years running, R & R has been producing some of the finest handmade adornments to ever hold up a pair of Wranglers. According to Butch Cornell, who owns R & R with his father Ray Cornell, an adherence to “handmade” methods is what has helped keep the business buckling for three decades.

“Most of the places now that are doing buckles,” he says, “the background engraving is all embossed in, and some of the well-known makers just glue their figures onto the buckles. We silver solder everything on and most of the little letters and fancy stuff we put on, we cut out by hand with a jeweler’s saw. That’s part of why people like our stuff, because it’s actually handmade.”

The Cornells got their start in buckling down in 1968, when the elder Cornell, who had been running a leather working operation at the time, purchased the defunct Denver Buckle Company. Ray Cornell purchased it thinking it would be a good addition to his belt and saddle-making enterprise. To his surprise, the buckle end of the business soon overtook that of his leather trade.

“We got to a point where we were so far behind in both that we decided we had to do one or the other,” recalls Butch Cornell. “We’ve stayed with it ever since.”

Back in the late 70s and early 1980s, the firm did a large amount of work thanks to word-of-mouth advertising from a rather unlikely source: Pittsburgh Pirate and Hall of Fame slugger Willie Stargell.

“We saw him on a Monday Night Football game when the Steelers were playing Denver,” Cornell remembers, “and he had a cowboy hat on and all that, so we sent him a buckle.”

The gift went a long way in spreading the reputation of R & R.

“That ballooned into a big deal,” Cornell says. “He would call us from the locker room after a baseball game and say, This is your buckle salesman in Pittsburgh,’ and he’d order buckles for the players, the players’ wives and their kids.”

Among the famous athletes who received R & R gifts from Stargell are boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Steeler football players “Mean” Joe Greene and Lynn Swann. “But it got to the point where people were calling Willie late at night to place an order, and he finally decided he wasn’t going to do that anymore.”

A typical custom-made buckle from R & R costs around $35 for a basic model, and larger custom-built beauties run up to $600. Is size important for wearers of R & R’s ornate jeans-holder-uppers?

“It depends,” Cornell divulges. “With kids, the bigger buckle is a big thing. But most of the guys, as they get older, they don’t want something cutting into their bellies. They don’t necessarily want a big one.”

Today, the bulk of R & R’s clientele are various club members, businesspeople, fraternities and outdoorsmen organizations, who appreciate the quality and cache of a personalized buckle. Of course, a large percentage of Cornell’s business comes from those who count horses and cows among their co-workers.

“You don’t see very many cowboys that will wear buckles from some of the big, well-known buckle companies,” Cornell says. “Real cowboys don’t wear that stuff. They want something that’s either handmade or more custom.”

Buckles typically are created from 6 inch by 36 inch sheets of raw nickel-silver, sterling overlay and sterling silver. Standard buckle shapes are punched from the metal, while others may be cut by hand. The basic shape is then sanded and polished before receiving appropriate lettering and graphic designs, which are also cut by hand from thin sheets of silver or bronze. Shapes and letters are then silver-soldered to the buckle in a process that requires a steady hand and much patience.

“Stuff wants to float around on you when you heat it up,” Cornell says, “and something else wants to float around when the solder melts. You have to kind of get a knack for that.” Buckles are then polished and buffed again, before finishing touches of engraving are applied. The total process takes from between an hour or two for a basic model to three or four hours for a more elaborate version. High-end trophy models may take even longer to make.

“A big part of our business now,” Cornell adds, “is making conchos for chaps and saddles and headstalls.” Cornell estimates that his company makes between 15,000 and 20,000 of the simple metal adornments used to decorate everything from saddles and boots to clothing and furniture.

“Our dies came from the old Crockett Bit & Spur Company that was in Boulder for years and years.” Cornell notes. “When they went out of business, we bought the dies from them. We get calls from people every day looking for conchos.”

In addition to conchos and belt buckles, the two-person operation makes small engraved metal plates and plaques, as well as decorative belt ends and loops, which are often sold in three-piece sets with a matching buckle. “We do a lot of odds and ends like that,” says Cornell, “so with everything else, we’ve got plenty to do.”

Success has been simple in the niche market, according to Cornell.

“People know that we make good stuff that’s gonna last,” he says. “They’ll see somebody in New York with one of our buckles and ask, Gee, where did you get that?’ and someone will say, Oh, there’s this place out in Colorado.’ I think if you make good stuff, the word gets around.”

BOULDER — Ever wonder where all those fancy belt buckles worn at the recent Stock Show are made?

Many come from R & R Buckles, located deep in the heart of Boulder.

For 30 years running, R & R has been producing some of the finest handmade adornments to ever hold up a pair of Wranglers. According to Butch Cornell, who owns R & R with his father Ray Cornell, an adherence to “handmade” methods is what has helped keep the business buckling for three decades.

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