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Buckle Up

Rodeo Belt Buckles: Western Works of Art

Article by Julie Martin Sunich

Photography by Pro Rodeo Hall Of Fame Colorado Springs

Originally published in Colorado Springs Lifestyle

“Belt buckle, cowboy hat and a smile. That’s what they call fashion in Texas.” -George Strait

Before the first cowboy drove his cattle down from high ground or sat upon a bucking bronc, there were belt buckles.

Not just your ordinary hold-your-pants-up buckles; large, ornate, bejeweled-plated metal clasps that evolved from ancient Romans and became the calling card of early European military units. What began as a wardrobe necessity became a status symbol of sorts, signifying both rank and nobility, eventually reaching the United States during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

Enter Levi Strauss

With Strauss’ invention of the blue jean in 1873, came the evolution of the belt loop, replacing suspenders worn by miners during the Gold Rush.  Today, the western-style belt buckle is an enduring symbol of the American West—and a coveted rodeo prize.

According to Megan Winterfelt, exhibits and collections coordinator at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy in Colorado Springs, the oldest trophy belt buckle was awarded in 1923.  Before that time, watches and the occasional pistol were given as prizes. “Jewelers were among the first rodeo sponsors,” explains Winterfelt, which sheds light on the continuing tradition of buckle bling.

No matter what the prize, the prestige has remained strong. Among the most coveted trophy buckles are those awarded by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the oldest and biggest rodeo-sanctioning body in the world, including the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo.

“Every rodeo event has a champion buckle,” explains Winterfelt. “In order to achieve the all-around world champion title, a rider has to win the most combined prize money that year.” No easy feat. Riders must compete in several riding and steer roping events throughout the mostly-western United States seeking to win a circuit championship buckle or even the biggest trophy of all—the all-around world champion buckle awarded at the PRCA National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

Works of Art

The buckles themselves are a work of art. Designed by artisan silversmiths each buckle may be customized to include personalized engraving, specific images, precious metals, and gemstones.

Judy Wagner, chief marketing officer for Montana Silversmiths, explains just how valuable some trophy buckles can be.

“Our trophy buckles for PRCA rodeos and special events range in price from $100 to $100,000 based on the material and design. The average rodeo championship buckle costs approximately $550 each and takes six weeks or less to build.”

But for many cowboys, the value of a trophy buckle is not in the cost, but in the sacrifice. Winterfelt calls them, “sentimental buckles.” Sometimes the trail to victory is met with setbacks for both horse and rider.

Win or lose. It’s the life of the rodeo. 

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