Salt Fork Designs: Custom-made jewelry by a one-of-a-kind family
October 21, 2018
Walk into Salt Fork Designs at 140 E. Oklahoma Boulevard and although you'll see handmade jewelry and artwork of all kinds, what you see is only the beginning of what you can find there.
And it all began with a couple of kids, and a family that knew how to turn love into action.
Garrett Radford (17), mom Laura Radford, and grandmother Sharon Brandt represent three generations of a family that has been ranching in the Alva area for six generations – almost back to statehood days. And while the three now spend much of their time in Salt Fork Designs making jewelry and other artwork, their love of their ranch and the western style of life is evident everywhere you look, and in everything they do.
Laura's other son, Wyatt Radford, is also known for his western art. One of his photographs (of a cowboy and his dog putlished in the Alva Review-Courier last year) won the Frank Lucas congressional district art contest and hung in the nation's capital for a year. Wyatt, who's a sophomore in college now, also sculpts and works in pottery and contributes to the Salt Fork Design store when he can.
Garrett, Laura and Sharon create custom-designed, handmade jewelry, and their work is very popular, and becoming more so.
The three moved their workshop into the building at 140 E. Oklahoma Boulevard in February of this year, and then opened the doors on May 5, but didn't get a sign out front until mid-September – at which point business picked up substantially.
"We were never going to be able to make enough jewelry to keep the store stocked," said Laura. "We have very few pieces available" in the store because they are constantly at work on custom-designed pieces that go right out the door as soon as they are finished. "We have very little time to make stuff to stock the store," Laura said, "so we thought we'd open it up. We have a lot of talented makers in Alva who don't have anywhere to display their work."
The store does also sell items crafted by out-of-towners, she said, but "nearly everything in here is handmade. Even our soaps come from a micro-dairy in western Oklahoma."
But the heart and soul of the shop is solidly in Alva.
How It Started
"In eighth grade I thought I wanted to be a bit and spur maker," said Garrett. "My dad gets all his spurs made by a guy in Weatherford, Texas. So I went down there for spring break and I thought 'I'll just hang out with this guy for a little while and figure out how this works.'
It only took a couple days for Garrett to realize he had a lot to learn before he could do any such thing.
Fortunately, though, learning is no problem for Garrett – or for his mom, Laura, or grandmother, Sharon. The spur-maker in Weatherford recommended he start by going to an engraving school in Kansas.
"He wasn't old enough to drive himself somewhere, so someone had to go with him," said grandmother Sharon.
When Garrett went to Kansas to learn about engraving, his mom went with him – and took the class, too. But after that, they both found themselves drawn to other kinds of metalworking – and took more classes.
"We started driving to more classes," said Laura, "and his grandmother started to go with us. We started learning to set the big stones, like turquoise and jasper and agate, and started learning more of the silver-smithing part of it."
Sharon offered up her garage to be their workshop.
"It had one light right in the middle of the room," said Garrett. "It was a terrible workshop, but that's what I had. I started making jewelry in there, and I loved it. So then after a while I thought, hey, I could do this for a living."
And, boy, has it all taken off.
"Last year we did about 160 custom orders between Labor Day and Christmas," said Laura, "and this year we've got a lot of orders already. But this year the difficulty of our orders has increased quite a bit. Last year our orders were basic things. This year we're getting more orders for turquoise rings, for mixed-metal rings with several components to them. So our level (of skill) has increased and our orders have come with us," she said.
The reaction has been so positive and the demand so great that Laura is imposing some limits this year.
"Last year, in the last 15 minutes before the mail went out on the last day before Christmas that the post office guarantees delivery, I was still shoving boxes out the door," she said. "We worked up to the last minute. Even then we still had orders that were due, but luckily they were local people who could come pick them up.
"This year we have cut (Christmas) orders off at Nov. 1 so we don't get in a bind again. My plan is if we get them all finished, I'll open it up for five more days. And then as they get finished, I'll open it up again."
It's been a little hectic, especially around Christmas, but the enthusiasm is still abundantly evident in all three.
"It's really been, like, a crazy journey all along," said Garrett. "I never thought I'd have a store, that's for sure. I really just thought I'd do this for fun. I'd make a couple pieces. Now, the more I've done it – someday I want to set diamonds. I want to have my own diamond shop. I haven't got there yet, but I'm working on it."
The Jewelry-Making Process
"Most of what we make has someone's ranch brand on it," said Laura. "Sometimes they'll actually take a branding iron and brand a board" and send it to us, she said, "and then that's where Mom comes into play. She'll take that into Photoshop and clean it up.
That's not as easy as it sounds. One time they were given a photograph of a tattoo on a guy's shoulder to work from. "It was round on his arm, so I had to figure out the perspective," said Sharon.
Once Sharon has cleaned up the image, she makes a template and prints it out onto sticky paper. The paper is stuck onto a piece of metal, and then Garrett gets to work. He attaches it to a special saw on his workbench, and spends the next 30 or 40 minutes cutting around the design.
The template can also be used for etching or other steps in the jewelry-making process.
Wyatt said via email that to him, "the role of western art is to help preserve a way of life that is disappearing. It helps people unfamiliar with the lifestyle see some moments from the daily life, so that they may get to know it better."
It also helps those who live the life celebrate their heritage.
"That brand to those families, it may have been Great-Grandpa's or something," said Sharon. "It's been handed down and it is like so special. It's their heritage."
Jewelry-makers who work with brands aren't on every street corner.
Only a handful of jewelry-makers do a lot with brands, said Laura. "If you get into the makers who've been doing this for a long time – and we're just not there yet – it's very expensive to have a custom piece made. The man who makes the spurs that Garrett went to intern with, to get a pair of spurs custom-made with your name or brand on there is $1,800. And there are guys who are getting $20,000 for a pair of spurs.
"So right now, with us being new and not feeling like we have the reputation to charge that kind of thing, our stuff is less expensive at this point because we're learning. So, we're not as fast. They may have to wait a little while because that pendant I showed you we had to make three times, because we don't want to send out anything that is below our standards."
Reasonable Prices; One-Of-A-Kind Jewelry
There's a system to figuring out the cost of a custom order, but none of it's astronomical – yet.
A custom, handmade cuff, for example, begins at $20 for brass or copper (silver starts at $80 for a 1-inch cuff). If you want a cuff made of two metals, it starts at $100 for brass and copper or $160 for a 1-inch cuff of silver on copper or brass. Additional options that involve costs are texturing (hammering), etching, flame painting and soldering. The design fee is a mere $20.
The base costs of other kinds of jewelry are only slightly more – $25 for earrings and pendants and $30 for rings of copper or brass. Silver is always more, and the more complicated the piece, the more expensive the materials, the longer the labor involved – well, obviously, the more it will cost.
Other popular items are money clips and key rings. Garrett has also made a hairpin with a delicate copper flower on the end – in fact, he considers that to be his best work.
"We're starting to do digital paintings," said Laura. "Mom does the digital paintings; I do the pictures. I'm leaning more toward fine art work with that, not portraits, because my passion is western art."
Laura takes a photograph, and then Sharon imports it into Photoshop. That's the easy part. Then, using a stylus on a large touchpad, Sharon painstakingly applies individual brushstrokes of varying sizes, shapes and textures throughout the entire image – a process requiring considerable time and creativity. Then the finished image is printed onto canvas, metal, or fine-art paper and framed. Laura and Sharon went all the way to Minnesota to learn how to create this kind of artwork.
"Basically anything artistic you want done, this is the place," said Sharon.
"And if we can't do it, we probably know somebody who can," said Garrett.
Anyone Can Be an Artist
"I think art is something you can learn," said Laura. "I don't think you're necessarily born being artistic. I think you can look at things and play with things and develop a style."
"I think you just have to like it," Sharon pitched in. "You just have to like art and explore it, and see things and think 'Oh, I want to do that, I want to try and learn that.' I go to museums and look at paintings and look at their brushstrokes," she said.
"Facebook and Instagram have helped a lot with jewelry-making," said Garrett. "My favorite engraver is Sam Alfano – I think he's the best engraver in America. He has a Facebook page and I'm always trying to draw his drawings. And there's a man in Ft. Worth, Texas, who makes jewelry. I'd like to go intern for him, I think he'd teach me a lot. I get on his website every couple weeks. Because of technology, I think becoming an artist and learning styles is easier because you can just type it in your phone and get ideas."
"You have to start with the very most basic things and master those before you can move on," said Laura.
"'Cause we melt a lot of metal," said Sharon, laughing.
"Yeah, we melt a lot, so we'd sure hate to work in gold," Laura said.
But even scrap metal still has value, Laura said. "All the copper scrap is going to Garrett and he's taking it up to the high school."
"We're going to cast some sculpture with it," Garrett said. "Once I get enough I'll start working on it. It's something my art teacher has wanted to do for a long time. Me and him (Greg McClure, Alva High School art teacher) ... when I was just getting started, I didn't have a lot of tools, but he was willing to help me any way he could. The more I learned, the more he's willing to get more tools to help me. He bought me a book the other day, and that's what I've been doing in his class, I've been reading – it's kind of weird to be reading in art class. But he's teaching me how to cast with wax. If he doesn't know how he'll find someone who does, or he'll buy you a book and you can learn how, or he'll play with it until he figures it out. He's a great guy."
And he's clearly a great teacher. Maybe because of him – and an equally great family – Garrett will be one kid who winds up making all his dreams come true.
"My end goal in life is to run some cattle, run some goats, weird as that sounds," said Garret.
"He shows sheep and goats," put in Laura.
"And I want to have a jewelry store," he said. "I figure if I can do all three of those things, I'm doing good."