The Smell of Leather

The Smell of Leather

If you’ve ever walked into a Western wear store, you’re familiar with the smell of leather. That cowboy smell–earthy and distinct.

“I love that smell” is the number one comment that leather worker, Bret Collier, hears from his customers. “People who come to my shop or walk by my trade-show displays always comment on the smell,” Collier said. “Some just pick up the merchandise, sniff it, and smile before they walk off.”

Leather-making is an ancient artform, but here in the American West, it conjures up the cowboy. In the late 1800s, a leathermaker was a common tradesman making saddles and tack for ranchers and farmers.  With the rise of the automobile, the industry shifted and is now an artform more common to rodeos and outdoor sporting.  The process for making hand-made leather products, however, is largely unchanged. 

“The way I make a gun holster is nearly identical to the way it would have been made at the turn of the century. I start with a huge roll of leather; half a side of a cow. I cut a strip and take it to my bench. I use mostly use hand tools that date back to 1900, because they were so well made. The only difference is that I do have some modern stainless steel tools, and I machine sew when I can. Oh, and I use a cell phone and a computer to run my business,” Collier quipped.    

Collier, who was raised in a rodeo family, was introduced to leatherworking as a child. His dad had a set of tools that peaked Bret’s creative interests, so he dabbled in making leather gifts. While riding bulls in southwest Texas during college, and he took a part-time job working with a saddle maker.” 

Initially, Collier was trained in saddle repairs, but eventually he developed the skills to make new saddles. The owner invited Collier to buy into the business—and for the next 40 years, he was a partner in the well-known Big Bend Saddlery in Alpine, Texas. Collier recently sold his interest in the business and moved to Edmond to be closer to family. He now does his leather-making from a shop at his house. 

Most of his sales and custom orders come from the various gun and wildlife shows in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. His merchandise ranges from knife scabbards and chair upholstery to Bible covers and radio straps for fire departments. His unexpected runaway hit is a chest holster, wanted by outdoorsman who need quick access to a firearm for protection from unexpected snakes or bears.    

Surprisingly, Collier can no longer smell the leather he works on. “It’s unfortunate, but after forty years of working with it, that sensory response just doesn’t click anymore, but I’m glad it does for other people. They love the smell and artistry of the leather, and my customers enjoy knowing the person who handcrafts their products–and I think that’s really refreshing.”

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