A new generation of Hayes silversmithing in Aspen
December 19, 2008
ASPEN ” The tools have officially changed hands at Hayes Silver and Goldsmiths in Aspen.
Jim Hayes, who founded the business in 1949, has passed his hammers, chisels and files to his daughter, Jess Bates. Bates, an accomplished jeweler in her own right, has helped her dad off and on for years.
What’s different this time is Jim’s health. He turned 88 in November; he hasn’t been able to produce his jewelry since June because of failing health, according to his wife, Mary Eshbaugh Hayes. Bates has helped Jim finish his work over the last two years. She needed to take over the business this year or it wouldn’t have continued.
“I helped build the business. I’d like to see it keep going,” Bates said from the Hayes studio in the family’s longtime home, a classic Victorian house on East Bleeker Street. “If I don’t do it, it won’t keep going.”
Bates’ willingness to take on the business preserves one of Aspen’s most enduring traditions from the post-World War II era. Jim created an iconic silver aspen leaf belt buckle that has turned into a “must-have” accessory for many Aspen residents and visitors.
Mary recalled that Jim met movie star Gary Cooper and skiing star Stein Eriksen during his first winter in town in 1949-’50 and made crude buckles for them. Jim opened his first shop that season in the Golden Horn restaurant and tweaked the design. “He kept working to get the lines just right,” Mary said.
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It was the perfect design: the silver representing Aspen’s roots as a mining camp and the leaf from its namesake tree. The price of the buckle soon went from $20 to $30. Some folks around the tight-knit town thought Jim was dreaming.
“People used to say, ‘That crazy Jim Hayes, he thinks he can get $30 for a belt buckle,'” Mary said. “Now they start at $1,000.”
The popularity of the buckles soared in the 1950s and the demand has endured through Aspen’s changing times. “Everybody wants the aspen leaf,” Mary said. “He always was famous for them.”
Bates said: “We’ve sold about 100 a year ” for 60 years.”
Silversmithing was always part of her life. Jim’s business became so popular he didn’t need to maintain a shop in the downtown core. People came to him, so he was able to set up shop in their home. “From the time I was an infant, he was over there making scratching noises” while working on the jewelry, said Bates, 46.
Bates started studying wood working after leaving Aspen in the 1980s. She eventually branched into working with other materials and a discovery was made.
“One day I said, ‘I really like metal work. Gee, that’s what my dad does,'” Bates said.
Jim’s business was booming in 1982, so Bates came back to Aspen to work with him. The first attempt didn’t turn out so well ” father and daughter didn’t mesh. Another attempt a short time later worked better and Bates apprenticed with Jim for six years.
Bates and her husband established their own shop at their Basalt residence in 1988, working with silver and gold. They handled all the large jobs for Hayes studio ” like the aspen leaves that the Aspen Skiing Co. gave to employees to recognize an anniversary.
“We had more of a volume shop down there. Jim stayed up here and did custom orders,” Bates said.
Bates moved to the Northwest, eventually divorced and started returning periodically to help her aging dad with orders when he was particularly busy, like before the holidays. Jim’s workload dwindled starting in 2006 and he conceded last summer to Bates that she needed to carry the load. His silversmithing days were through.
The Hayes have always bought their metal from a small refinery in Virginia. Ironically, a son took over that business from his dad just as Bates took over the silversmithing from her dad.
Bates works with rolled metal sheets, cuts out the aspen leaves, uses wood chisels to create the veins and then uses high-temperature soldering to attach the leaf to the base of the buckle. The filing and buffing are done by hand.
The process is “very low tech,” Bates said, but also “an exercise in perfection.”
“It just takes a little bit of will power ” and I have plenty of that,” she said.
It takes one full day to produce the standard buckle and up to three days for a custom design.
Jim, and now Bates, also create other jewelry out of silver and gold, but the aspen leaf buckles have always been their signature piece.
Bates said nearly every customers has taken the passing of the torch in stride. “They’re glad there’s still a family connection,” she said.
The Aspen fire department is one of the most loyal customers of the Hayes silversmiths. Bates worked with the late Stan Lauriski of the fire department years ago to design aspen leaf pins. They are awarded by the department when a volunteer reaches a special anniversary for years of service. They are awarded for anniversaries in increments of five years ” such as five years, 10 years, etc.
Fire Chief Darryl Grob said awarding the pins is a time-honored tradition at the department. He said 13 were awarded to firefighters at the department’s annual celebration Dec. 13.
“It’s an icon of the community,” he said of the silver aspen leaf. The department also presents a silver aspen leaf belt buckle to volunteers that reach 20 years of service.
Jim wasn’t able to tackle the fire department’s order a few years ago, so the department located a different silversmith in Carbondale, Grob said. The department was excited to get reconnected with Bates and Hayes studio for this year’s order, he said.
The differences between Jim’s buckles of any era and those created by Bates today are impossible for the average person to detect.
“I can look at a buckle and tell if I made it or Jim made it ” place it in a context and time,” Bates said.
Placing herself in context and time is a little more difficult. Bates said she hasn’t lived in Aspen full time for 22 years. She is uncertain how long she will stick around and carry on the family tradition.
“It’s a little surprising to me that I’m here,” she said. Love of her family and a sense of obligation to her parents at a difficult time drew her back. “It’s definitely the right thing for me to do right now,” Bates said.