Every PRCA world champion has an exclusive work of art that hangs just below the waistline—a 14kt gold belt buckle by master craftsmen at Montana Silversmiths.

“It’s a cowboy business card,” says Judy Wagner of the Columbus, Mont.-based company. “It tells who they are and what they’ve accomplished. That’s their Super Bowl ring. That’s their Stanley Cup.”

Every glittering buckle pays tribute not just to the cowboy, but to the artisans at Montana Silversmiths, who pour their hearts into each customized masterpiece.

Since the fall of 1999, Montana Silversmiths has created custom trophy buckles for Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events. A newly signed contract extends the partnership through 2013 for approximately 700 gold and sterling silver buckles a year.

The little company with a big reputation has 200 employees, and devotes about 115 man hours to make a custom-made buckle. It also provides the championship trophy buckles for the American Quarter Horse Association, the National Reining Horse Association, the Appaloosa Horse Club, the Cowboy Mounted Shooters Association, and the Wrangler Team Roping Championships. “We have good, talented people,” says Wagner. “We have people who’ve been here for 30-plus years. A lot have 25 years in.”

And this talented crew does not limit itself to belt buckles, offering thousands of classic Montana inspired Western products, like jewelry, statuary, and furnishings.

It all started 36 years ago when company founder Kent Williams moved his awards and trophy business from Billings, Montana to Columbus 45 miles west. He’d wanted a less crowded corner of the state and a quiet ranch to raise his family on. Soon, though, he found himself looking to expand his business.

“Whenever [Williams] had used buckles for awards either they came late or the quality was such that he was embarrassed,” say Dennis Potzman, company vice president. “He knew there was a void in the buckle business.”

Williams found equipment for his manufacturing operation in Texas, loaded it up for the trip to Montana, and set up shop in an old gas station on the main street of Columbus. Along with three employees, he started producing trophy buckles and saddle trim and eventually sold the company in 1993 to a Texas equity group. (Thompson Street Capital Partners of St. Louis are the current owners.)

To this day, Montana Silversmiths remains a laid-back operation. The Yellowstone River is only a few steps from company headquarters, and employees are known to fish before and after (and sometimes during) work.

But it’s not all play in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains. “We look at what products are selling in other markets, but are not being sold for the Western lifestyle, and try to fill that gap,” Potzman says.

The company’s new line of dinnerware, for instance, was designed by artist Paul Cameron Smith, who used scenes of everyday ranch life for inspiration. There’s also a new collection of handtooled leather cell phone cases, purses, wallets, and briefcases.

The Montana Silversmiths catalog even includes furniture, novelty footwear, Dan Gwynn knives, watches, and sculptures by Western artist Steve Miller. And couples planning a Western-themed wedding can accessorize everything from the cake top to the ring-bearer pillow, with items from a line of wedding merchandise. Following the logical progression, the company also offers nursery décor— items like crib bedding and diaper bags decorated with a sleepy horse sporting a red bandana.

Though not every item is produced in Columbus, all Montana Silversmiths products follow strict specifi cations. And although machines are used in much of the production process, each piece is worked on by human hands at 18 to 20 stages before it is placed in a signature case of blue velvet. The company does not sell direct and works through its 5,000 retail customers across the U.S. and in 23 in foreign countries.

“The last six months of last year and the first six months of this year have been hard,” says Potzman. “We’ve seen attrition in Western stores, but we’ve seen a lot of new stores, too.”

Western jewelry, though, remains popular. The necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, brooches, and barrettes are as fi nely crafted as the company’s renowned belt buckles and come in all price ranges.

Steve Miller’s minutely carved sculpture collection (“gallery quality works of art at working cowboy prices”) ranges from $150 to $200.

Montana Silversmiths’ core product—belt buckles— is not just custom-made for rodeo champions. The company will put a rancher’s brand on a sterling silver buckle for prices starting at $75, and the brass-cast buckles start at $17. And every buckle is coated with a product called “Montana Armor” that keeps it tarnish free.

On the more light-hearted side, one of the most poplar lines is “Elmer,” a gawky horse with a penchant for ice fi shing, skiing, and generally enjoying life on the range. Resin sculptures of the whimsical horse, philosophizing from his beach chair or his hay bale, have tickled the fancy of cowpunchers everywhere. Elmer has become so popular that he often serves as the company mascot at events and retail outlets.

“We’re very focused and we have some wonderful new products coming out,” Potzman says about rebounding in this tough economy. “We like to keep things fresh.”

For more information, visit www.montanasilversmiths.com

For more information, visit montanasilversmiths.com

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