Just five minutes in the workroom of Sunset Trails and I am back in my father's workshop in Tucson. He had learned silversmithing from the Navajos while we were living on the reservation, and he brought it with him when we moved. I inhale the musty smell of aged steel and the tang of freshly cut leather that permeates this Temecula atelier.
Sunset Trails is into its third generation of Stanton men, stretching back to the early 1920s, when Joseph Stanton's brother-in-law, Michael Srour, opened shop in his West Adams garage.
Srour's timing couldn't have been more spot-on. His handcrafted Western belt buckles and saddle silver conjured the vanishing cowboy lifestyle just as Hollywood was hard at work mythologizing it. Srour soon moved the business to Culver City, just a lasso throw from MGM studios. There he employed up to 40 artisans to create one-of-a-kind silver accessories for dozens of Western luminaries, including Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
By the 1940s, when Stanton and his son Bob signed on, business was in full gallop. Sunset Trails, as Bob renamed the company, became a dynasty in 1979 when his eldest son, Tony, learned the trade. In 1990, Tony was joined by his younger brother Todd.
Bob and his sons are sturdy and unassuming; with round rosy noses and thick-lidded eyes that appear to sparkle with the knowledge of some secret joke. They share a deep respect for one another that comes from years of mutual toil. Today they run the business with four employees out of a blocky white building on Business Park Drive.
Inside you pass through a narrow sitting room and into a vast workshop as strewn with debris as a windswept Old West town. Scraps of flattened silver, wire-thin jewelers saws, scuffed wood-handled engraving tools and lit soldering torches, their blue-gas flames flickering in the unsettled air, litter the antique landscape.
The weathered dies, some nearly 90 years old, sit like rigid sentinels on wooden shelves, their thick steel forms waiting to be struck upon impressionable silver by the well-oiled bench and screw presses. From this timeless process, works of art are born. I didn't grow up to be a silversmith, but maybe one of Tony and Todd Stanton's nephews or nieces will.
"If we don't have anyone to leave the shop to we'll leave it to the Smithsonian," Todd jokes.
Still, the tools of their trade are far from superannuated. Through the years, the business has reinvented itself and created unique pieces for decidedly non-Western stars such as James Dean, Elvis Presley and, most recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wore a pair of cowboy boots decorated with Sunset Trails silverwork to his inauguration.
"Now it's a man's jewelry," Todd says, his hand resting lightly on the heavy form of a well-worn die.