A turquoise cow skull belt buckle.

The cow skull has long been a symbol of the Old West, and turquoise has an even longer history in the West. Those were just two of the reasons that Santa Fe, New Mexico, jewelry artist Douglas Magnus of Douglas Magnus/Heartline wanted to create a special buckle for his new “Tough Stuff” collection.

“It truly is part of the West,” Magnus says of the cow skull design. “All the cowboys use it in their trucks, but the technique that I’m using and the way in which we do it here in the shop are very much an extension of all that Indian jewelry and all that Western jewelry.”

The skull is made of turquoise, on a silver belt buckle featuring a diamond plate design. The look might be modern, but the technique is historic. “It’s sand-cast,” Magnus says from his Santa Fe studio, “which is not something you see very much. Not an awful lot of people do it that way. It took us quite a few attempts to get it right.”

The Navajos first began casting jewelry using sand and perhaps the better known tufa stone in the 1870s, but the casting method, such as “lost wax,” prob ably goes back 4,000 years.

After making an impression of the buckle in sand, molten silver is poured into the mold. Once the buckle has been cooled and cleaned, meticulously cut turquoise has to be set into the design. The casting process produces a one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry. This isn’t some cookie-cutter operation.

Indian and Western jewelry has interested and inspired Magnus since he came to New Mexico in 1969 from California and began making jewelry in the early 1970s. By the late 1980s, Magnus had begun acquiring about 60 acres in the Cerrillos Mining District south of Santa Fe. Charles Fletcher Lummis went through the area during his famous 1884 walk from Ohio to Los Angeles. Lew Wallace once considered investing in mining properties during his term as territorial governor in the days of Billy the Kid.

Magnus’ property, which he named the Millennium Mines “in honor of 1,000 years of history,” includes the Tiffany, Castilian, Alisa and Council turquoise mines. Pueblo Indians dug for turquoise even before AD 700. Around 1600, the Spanish took over the mines, using slave labor, and American interest dominated the area in the late 1800s. The mines aren’t that productive these days, yet Magnus remains quite prolific. “I like to make new things,” he says.

For additional information see www.douglasmagnus.com. Also, see a longer article on Magnus (“Jewelry Artist Douglas Magnus Owns Turquoise Mines”) and more of his jewelry at dev.historynet.com/ magazines/wild_west.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here