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Crafting silver with the Lone Star spirit

Star-Telegram

Matt Litz exemplifies the kind of can-do, get ’er done spirit that has become the stuff of legend in Texas, and it has helped propel him onto the international stage as an award-winning silver artisan.

From a modest studio in the back yard of his Iowa Park home, Litz transforms pencil sketches and sheets of silver into intricately engraved Western-style rings, bracelets, belt buckles — anything, really, that strikes his fancy, arouses his interest or pays the bills. He counts clients across the country and as far away as Sweden, France and Brazil.

He has made engagement rings, engraved guns, decorated dog collars and crafted custom belt buckles to reward sales leaders at the largest hat company in the world.

This year, Litz handmade 16 belt buckles for top exhibitors at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. It’s the fourth year he’s done so, and show organizers have commissioned up to 30 buckles from him at a time.

He’s also continually challenging himself and building on his skills with creative design projects. He enters these pieces into national contests like the Western Design Conference in Wyoming and the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association show in Arizona, and mostly, he wins.

It’s an impressive record of achievement, not in the least because Litz is entirely self-taught, and he’s only able to work nights and weekends.

Ten years ago, Litz seemed headed for a career in the classroom as an agriculture teacher. He’d grown up immersed in the farm and ranch life in Paducah, raising cotton, peanuts and beef cattle with his family. He learned to weld, but never gave thought to how the skill could affect his life. It was simply something he learned to do in order to get jobs done around the barn, part of a childhood he spent fixing, building and getting done whatever needed to get done.

“The way I was raised, if something’s broke, fix it; if you don’t know how to fix it, figure it out,” he recalls. “I knew nothing would ever be handed to me — if you wanted something, you had to go out and get it.”

And that’s exactly how he got started as a silversmith. It was 2004, and he was a student at Vernon College when he met a guy who was wearing a cool belt buckle. Litz liked it, wanted one just like it, and jumped to the natural conclusion: He’d make it. Through trial and error — a lot of trial and error — he did just that. “It was a challenge,” he admits of those early days honing his skills at a workbench in the garage. “I never dreamed it would go as far as it has.”

Litz’s hobby organically developed into a business. “I’d build stuff for myself, people would like it and they’d buy it off of me,” he says. “I once had a guy stop me as I was walking and buy my belt buckle — I walked around the rest of the afternoon with no buckle.”

First came the individual people and engaged couples. Then came companies and organizations like the National Cutting Horse Association and the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. Two years ago, he started a Facebook page. Posting pictures of his work has helped to build business. He also meets people through art shows and competitions where he enters pieces like an exquisite silver evening bag that took him more than 80 hours to engrave. (It won second place and later sold at auction for $13,000.)

Litz easily could spend every minute of every day in his studio, but he doesn’t. He can’t. Until dinnertime every day, he’s the foreman of a welding shop, where he and nine other men build high-pressure tanks and vats for oil companies. It’s a job he has held for 13 years. When he comes home, it’s family time with his wife and young daughter. It’s only when the lights go out around 9 p.m. that he heads out to his second shift as silversmith, where he toils as late as 2 a.m. to design, build and perfect each commissioned piece using silver, gold and copper. “I just put my nose to the grindstone and hit it as hard as I can,” he says.

But it’s definitely a labor of love, Litz says, and he especially enjoys the look on people’s faces and their responses when he gives them their pieces. His only regret is that his meticulous attention to detail and quality doesn’t allow him to work faster. “If people are willing to wait, I am more than happy to do whatever they want me to do,” he says.

For Lauren Lovelace, assistant operations manager at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, Litz’s belt buckles are well worth any wait. “These are more than just buckles, they’re trophies, too,” she says. “They have to be something you’d be proud to wear, and Matt’s ability to translate that from metal, and to do it all by hand, is really incredible.”

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