Silversmiths find a silver way of life



VPT Silversmith's design for a Stetson buckle for their new line of belts.


Zan shows a leather belt with four buckles that was made for his wife, Patience. The Traughbers have been asked by Stetson to create custom buckles for their first line of belts.


Patience Traughber shows the design on a horseshoe belt buckle.


With magnifying glasses down, silversmith Zan Traughber does some fine work on small engravings.


Patience Traughber


Zan Traughber


The hands of silversmith Zan Traughber craft a piece of the fine metal in his shop near Pendleton earlier this month.


ZPT Silversmiths with their design for the Stetson belt buckle line.


Along with belt buckles, the Traughbers have a wide range – and scale – of silver and gold works.


The Traughbers stay busy with other works in progress.

PENDLETON - At the top of a series of rolling hills, the home and shop of Zan and Patience Traughber overlooks Pendleton and the wheat fields surrounding this small city that is tucked into the northern corner of Eastern Oregon.

On this early January day, a sapphire sky contrasts with purple rain clouds scooting along the horizon like furry puppies, as a winter wind nips at their heels.

It all serves to visually set the stage for the art that is birthed in the cozy log shop of ZPT Silversmiths.

Down the little lane of driveway and through the barn-like door, they create the most western of belt buckles and the sleekest of contemporary high-end jewelry.

And a whole lot in between. If it's fancy and made of sterling silver, you're likely to find it on one of the wood work counters that line the shop. From the tiniest, hand-sawn lettering of a logo to the intricate engraving covering a sweet little Ruger .357.

The husband and wife silversmiths have been at this since 1990, about the time a blown spinal disc yanked Zan out of longtime work as a diesel mechanic, he said.

Before that, however, Zan - who grew up in the John Day Valley in the farming and cowboy culture - had been making boot spurs for a number of years. "Then he realized adding silver to the spurs would bring in a whole lot more money," Patience recalled in a soft drawl with traces of the Texas she was raised in.

"People like the embellishment. An initial or something. It personalizes it."

It's the lifeblood of the business, in fact - many customers are eager to own a ZPT Silversmiths creation that not only embraces the Western lifestyle, but says something about who owns it, she noted. "People like to have a keepsake. An heirloom they can hand down."

The artists are acutely aware their pieces are going to last longer than they do, Patience explained. "Everything we make is heirloom quality."

That detail people seek, personalized or not, begins with an artistic rendering by Zan or Patience. In general, they agree, he designs more of the belt buckles and she envisions all of the jewelry.

In what can be 12-plus hour days (when deadlines demand it), the silversmiths transfer their artistic ideas from pencil drawings on bits of paper to sterling silver or other materials via $35,000 worth of tools and machines, give or take a tiny tweezer or two.

Rendition takes the thinnest hand saws to steam cleaners, the engraving ball - "I love this machine," Zan exclaimed - to the pantograph, an engraving machine that traces a drawing or stencil on one side and cuts it via mechanical linkage into the piece of metal on the plate. In this manner, a complicated design can be duplicated on the silver with a stylus in about 20 minutes, Patience said.

That's one step in the process of making generational beauty.

In addition to selling at a number of outlets - including the U.S. Senate gift shop as the only silversmiths represented there - the shop receives a lot of its business through contracts to create award jewelry, spurs and belt buckles.

That includes, of course, creating buckles for the Pendleton Roundup and converting bolo tie medallions of retiring Roundup directors into buckles.

This year, ZPT Silversmiths was chosen to help launch the first, line of belts from Stetson, the company famous by its hats. The duo was part of a trio of vendors to create one-of-a-kind buckles to launch the new line. The Traughber's buckle retails for $2,100 and will be the model for lower-priced buckles available for the belt.

The winning design features a longhorn steer, a good fit for the Stetson brand, Patience pointed out, and bonus points for a girl born and raised in the Lone Star State. The official public presentation took place in San Antonio in December.

Some wineries have similarly jumped on the logo train by ordering custom pieces and the silversmiths would love nothing more than to see the trend expand. Vineyard art, with its intricate and viney look, lends itself perfectly to depiction in silver, they say.

While any artist would rather make than market, that aspect has become much easier with Facebook, Patience said. "We put pieces on there and they're gone."

Word-of-mouth works nearly the same, as does exposure in various outlets around the region.

It pays the bills, Zan and Patience said. And that allows for some fun, such as the three-piece buckle set the two have designed. The sterling silver horseshoe-shaped buckle boasts 24-carat gold inlaid flowers centered with diamonds. The belt keeper and tip echo the glory and all together will retail for $18,000. That comes from about $4,000 in materials, plus hours of painstaking labor.

The biggest problem with the set is trying to decide if they can really part with it, the Traughbers said.

Other than that, being silversmiths - together - is the best job ever, Zan said

Married 30 years, he can't think of a better way to spend a day and earn a paycheck, he said. "Meeting Patience is the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm a lucky man."


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