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Mystery of the bolo

SANTA FE, N.M. — From Roy Rogers to the Paris runways, bolo ties show off the informal ruggedness of the West in sleek style.

First emerging in the 1940s as a challenge to conventional neckwear, their origins are hazy and rife with myth. But regardless of heritage – be it cowboy or Indian, miner or merchant, Anglo or Latino – this small rebellion against the slow strangulation of the power tie is being embraced by all.

By the 1960s-’70s, the bolo tie was de riguer for politicos, bank presidents, celebrities and tourists. Zuni, Hopi, Navajo and pueblo silversmiths had transformed these practical ornaments into canvasses rich in texture, color and form. The contemporary American Indian jewelry movement – beginning with Hopi master Charles Loloma – introduced new techniques and materials.

The Heard Museum in Phoenix has amassed about 450 bolos from its permanent collection and on loan from Chicago collector Norman Sandfield for an exhibition through Sept. 3, 2012. Heard curator Diana Pardue and Sandfield collaborated on the companion book “Native American Bolo Ties” (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2011).

Bolos follow a plumb line tracing back to both the scarf slide and Victorian-era slide necklaces with cords of braided hair. After that, its provenance becomes as twisted and tangled as the leather cords it dangles.

“We don’t fully know” the origins, Pardue said. “We know they were worn in the ’40s. They were often referred to as string ties. We know they were worn in Arizona and New Mexico. We think it was a deviation and outgrowth of the scarf slide.”

Wickenburg, Ariz., silversmith Victor Cedarstaff claimed to have invented the bolo in 1949. A gust of wind blew off his hat while he was out riding one day. He retrieved the silver-trimmed hat band and tossed it around his neck. Inspired, he went home and fashioned his own version from leather, silver and turquoise. Cedarstaff patented the invention in 1954.

But a number of conflicting facts contradict his story. William H. Meeker filed a bolo patent application for the Hickok Manufacturing Company in 1953.

“They got their ideas from the Navajo designs of that period,” Chicago collector Norman Sandfield said. Sandfield has about 1,350 bolos in his personal collection. Already a collector/dealer in Japanese netsuke, miniature 17th century sculptures, he had also been amassing miniature silver Native American seed pots. The transition to bolos came when a friend gave him a vintage turquoise and silver belt buckle for his birthday.

“I thought I might as well get a bolo to go with it,” he said.

Intrigued, he began researching their history from a 33-year-old book.

“I started quoting from it and people kept telling me I was wrong,” he said. “The book is Anglo-centric. It does not give the Native Americans credit. A lot of people claim to have invented, started and developed the bolo tie. The trouble is, there’s no catalog, no articles …, so it’s impossible to document them.”

An 1898 photograph of Chief Wolf Robe (Cheyenne) shows him wearing a scarf slide with a U.S. peace medal. Photographs taken during the Victorian era show both Anglo and Native men wearing scarves tied by a plain metal ring. By the 1920s, Native American men were carving slides from sheep vertebrae into steer heads. Zuni Pueblo artisans began decorating them with beadwork. Soon master carvers such as Leekya Deyuse added bolos to their jewelry arsenal.

“It was a way to dress up without wearing a cloth tie,” Pardue said. “It was a Western variation that was less formal but had some dressy appeal.”

Hopalong Cassidy wore one of the most famous steer head scarf slides in the TV series starring William Boyd. As Westerns mushroomed in popularity, manufacturers duplicated Roy Rogers scarf slides, selling them to children as premiums. Robert Taylor wore a scarf slide in “Billy the Kid” (1941). Film studios sold bolo ties featuring the names and/or images of Western cowboy stars as part of their marketing campaigns. The earliest bolo ties – made in the shape of an isosceles, trapezoid or keystone – were in common use by the 1940s.

Most scholars date the bolo to the 1920s and ’30s. To add to the bewilderment, some traders say “bolo,” while others prefer “bola.”

“There is no one right answer,” Sandfield said. For the book title, he posted an Internet vote.

“Bolo won 7-to-1,” he said.

Whatever its name, this western alternative to the tie is the official neckwear for the states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

By the 1970s, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater was wearing bolos to the White House. The materials included silver, malachite and turquoise, while others sported gold and copper enhancements. It became the official Arizona state neckwear in 1973; New Mexico followed suit in 1987. In 2007, Gov. Rick Perry signed a resolution making the bolo the official state tie of Texas.

The designs and techniques exploded with the contemporary Indian jewelry movement that started in the 1970s. As early as the 1950s, Charles Loloma was designing bolos using his signature tufa casting technique. Some reflected Hopi life and culture, including corn and the badger paw. By the 1990s, Norbert Peshlakai (Navajo) was making a Picasso-style bolo, its fractured face inlaid with coral.

Many Zuni artists reflect cultural iconography in their bolos. Carolyn Bobelu’s “Cosmic Journey” bolo of the 1990s is set with lapis lazuli, turquoise and coral inlay. By 2009, Navajo Julius Keyonnie turned a seed pot into a bolo in sliver, gold and turquoise. Renowned glass artist Preston Singletary (Tlingit) made a “Spirit Mask” bolo in 2011.

“Right now they’re very popular and mainstream,” Pardue said. “Some of the fashion designers have put them on the runway.”

Sandfield still scours “the eBay pueblo” for interesting examples.

“I bought four wonderful pieces at the Santa Fe Indian Market this year,” he added.

Today bolo ties are made around the world. In England, ceramicists have made them from Wedgewood Jasperware; Japanese artisans make them in wood mosaic. The Danes make them with silver.

Designers like Rag & Bone, Acme and Bottega Veneta have draped them around models’ necks. Actors such as “Glee’s” Chris Coffer wear them on TV; they’ve been spotted in countless Westerns. “Two and a Half Men” star Jon Cryer wore one in “Pretty in Pink.”

But don’t ask Sandfield to name his favorite.

“They’re all my children,” he said.


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