Hip History

For centuries, in the absence of buttons, zippers, and Velcro, buckles and their predecessors—including fibulas and stomachers—partnered with cloth to cover the body. Yet these clothes fasteners were ornamental as well as functional: They bespoke a person’s rank in society as well as his loves, friendships, and adventures.

Buckles today can summon images from an idealized past, add a touch of wit or whimsy to a daily routine, or stand as small artistic achievements in their own right. It’s no wonder that fine jewelry designers have embraced them.

Every buckle tells a story. Belt buckles can express the wearer’s pride in his hometown or heritage. Designer Steven Lagos, Philadelphia, Pa., created his “Heart of Texas” belt buckle (sold only at Neiman Marcus) for Texans who like to trumpet their feelings for the state. According to Michelle Peranteau, public relations director for Lagos, the designer’s first and only buckle is made of sterling silver with 18k gold accents and retails for $795. “Texans have a lot of pride,” she says. Cowboy boots, longhorns, the “lone star” from the Texas flag, and the Alamo—all elements featured on Lagos’s lone buckle—conjure up an image of Texas. At press time, the buckle had been on the market for only a few weeks, and the majority of customers were women buying the buckle for their Texan men.

Bringing metal to life is another buckle theme. Designers like Barry Kieselstein-Cord, New York City, and Rick Cameron, Woodstock, N.Y., depict familiar creatures, such as Cameron’s best-selling steed. “The horse is a classic and is always in style,” he says. Independent jewelers, mainly from the western states, sell Cameron’s sterling silver, animal-inspired buckles at retail prices of $300-$400. About 65% of his customers are men, but he’s looking to change that with some simpler, softer designs for women. Kieselstein-Cord’s alligator buckle in silver or boule-art bronze coated with 18k gold reflects the beauty of the Florida Everglades, near the designer’s hometown. Jewelers nationwide also sell his pieces, and buckle prices range from $485 to $1,400. What kind of person wears an alligator buckle? “A confident man or woman,” says Pam Eldridge, marketing director for the company.

Romantic stories were illustrated on belt buckles during Victorian times (1837-1901). “[Themes of] love, friendship, and lost loves were captured on buckles,” says Jacqueline Smelkinson, co-owner of The Spare Room, Baltimore, Md. Smelkinson has retailed antique jewelry, including buckles, for more than 20 years. Collectors are her biggest fans, snapping up highly desirable pieces such as two snakes face-to-face from the Art Nouveau period. “Snake motifs are romantic because they symbolize everlasting life,” she says. In fact, Queen Victoria wore a snake-themed wedding ring on her marriage to Albert in 1840. Buckles, in general, still can be seen as symbols of life everlasting: They help belts circle the waist as well as connect and secure the ends.

Sometimes buckles are simply elegant, complementing an outfit and serving as “jewelry for the waist,” according to Jody Serago of Jody Serago Designs, Somers Point, N.J. His buckles made of 18k gold and sterling silver retail for $1,400 nationwide. “Buckles help lower the eye to let people see your entire outfit,” says Serago. David Yurman, New York, agrees. In fact, Yurman’s first jewelry creation—made more than 20 years ago—was a buckle, according to a company official. A recent Yurman buckle design featuring a single cable inset made of silver retails for $285. Younger consumers tend to appreciate these styles more than others, say both designers.

Post-Revolutionary War buckles helped citizens of the new United States find their identities. Many Americans hoisted trousers with flag motif buckles, while others bolstered their britches with belts displaying eagle buckles. But men didn’t fully appreciate the buckle until after the Civil War, says Jacquelyn Isola Babush, owner of Aesthetic Engineering, Decatur, Ga. With 20 years of experience under her own belt buckle, Babush is well-versed in antique jewelry. She is particularly interested in pieces from the Georgian era (1714-1820) and is writing a book on that subject. Pieces have evolved with our changing waistlines because of aesthetics, she says. “Trends come and go, shapes and styles change, but women still like pretty things.”

Perhaps the most recognizable American buckles are those celebrating the Southwest, especially those made famous by the Texas Rangers. Members of this Texas military force, which originated in the 1830s, wore their six-shooters in holsters that hung from wide belts. To close the belts, the Rangers borrowed a technique from their mounts—the “cinching” method, which was used to tighten saddle girths without catching the horse’s hair or pinching its skin. Thus was the Ranger buckle assembly born. Original Ranger buckles were made of gold and silver and featured floral-like designs, some set with rubies. Ranger buckles evolved to show Navaho Indian influences and familiar Texas landscape elements, including sunshine “fanning” through clouds. Teme Jewelry Designs, Albuquerque, N.M., retails sterling and 14k gold-accented Ranger buckles with these traditional patterns for $150-$450. “Ranger buckle sets usually have four pieces—the buckle, two keepers, and a tip,” says Teme owner Lionel McKinney.

Some buckle enthusiasts just want to have fun. According to Sharon Williams, national sales director of U.S. operations for Tous, Walnut Creek, Calif., many customers who want “something to make them smile” opt for the company’s side-by-side bears buckle. All of Tous’s sterling buckles, including other playful motifs like a tulip and the VW Beetle (also a unisex symbol), retail for $85 to $98.