What to Know
Tucson Guide Quarterly ~ Summer 2000
The Last Craftsmen -- 5 area artisans make leather goods, metal works & more, the old-fashioned way.
by Paul Morris
photography by Rebecca Ross
In the early morning, the ringing sounds of hammer on metal echo down a Tucson street as a blacksmith slowly shapes a twisting piece of iron. Soon it will become a gatepost. Or perhaps part of a headboard. The man with the big shoulders won't know what it will be until the fire and hammer reveal its future form to him.
A few blocks away, a man with a long black ponytail sits quietly on a stool before a sheet of turquoise leather. He pauses and studies the sheen on the flawless surface. With his right hand, he takes a sharp blade and begins to slowly cut a design through the leather destined to become a briefcase.
And in the old mining town of Bisbee, a hatmaker picks up a felt hat that he found at a garage sale. He paid $6 for the crumpled hat, thinking, perhaps he could make something of it.He places the brim into a plume of steam and slowly, gently begins to turn the edge up into a stylish curve. Yes, a bit of its style remains in the felt, just waiting to be shaped into view.
These are among the last remaining artisans of the Old West -- a few serious craftsmen, who strive for historical authenticity in their wares and use many techniques from earlier centuries. People who believe that the old ways are often the best ways to do things if you want them done right. These artisans could perhaps make a better living if they sold mass-produced crafts, but they choose not to. They work to create one-of-a-kind utilitarian crafts. Excellence and creativity are the driving forces in art like this, and to visit these people is like taking a time machine back to an era when quality and beauty reigned. Here is the story of five artisans of the Old West.
Grant Sergot in Bisbee is one of the few remaining traditional, authentic hatmakers in the country. His store, Optimo Custom Hatworks, on historic Main Street, offers a chance to see classic hats in all their glory and to find the one hat that you must wear home.
Sergot's store is one of the few places in the Southwest where you can purchase a Panama straw hat and have it shaped to fit your head (and personality). Panama hats (which actually come from ecuador) are created from palmetto plants by highly skilled weavers. Think of it as fiber art. The weaving's grade runs from one to 20, based on the quality of the straw and the tightness of the weave. A number- 3 grade has the look of burlap, while a number- 14 grade feels like fine linen. The grade- 20 hats are very rare, because only a few living weavers can still produce such an intricate and delicate quality.
Sergot offers a variety of styles and grades of hats to choose from. Do you fancy yourself in a Sam Spade fedora or as Indiana Jones? Are you a fan of Tom Mix's 10-gallon hat or would something smaller be better? These are difficult choices if you're a hat novice, but here the selection of a hat can include a discussion of your personality (bold or shy), how you'll use the hat (for hiking or dress affairs), and the social attributes of various hatbands (the bigger, the more formal the hat becomes). This allows Sergot to match a person to the right hat. It's a bit like going on the Dating Game and taking home a winner.
Once the right hat is chosen, Sergot shapes it with an antique hat steamer to improve its fit or modify its style and then adds a hatband of your choice. All this takes time to do right, so hats are usually mailed to the buyer.
If you prefer a felt hat, Optimo Hats can help you. In the back of the store sit a series of wooden hat forms (known as "block heads") used in the elaborate sizing and shaping process. The hat is placed over the form, steamed, and left to dry. Then the brim is placed in another series of forms to be steamed, shaped, and dried. This time consuming process requires hours of attention and handwork. That's one of the reasons these are great hats-- headware that can be passed down to another generation and has a distinctive style and beauty all its own. But don't take my word for it. Ask customers like Tom Selleck and Faye Dunaway.