There is a wall in a bedroom on Ralph and Ricky Lauren’s Colorado cattle ranch where antique concho belts hang in a row, cascading from timber slats on either side of a headboard. Marked by the soft tinge of timeworn silver, adorned with turquoise, or scalloped at the edges, each one is a unique piece of art.
No matter the season, Mr. Lauren’s lifelong fascination with the mystique of the West—its traditions of handcraft and its uniquely American story—has been a constant throughline across five decades of design. Now, with the limited-production American Western watch collection, a series of six hand-engraved styles in sterling silver and 18K gold and hand-tooled fine vachetta leather, Mr. Lauren went about translating his love of vintage concho and rodeo belts into heirloom timepieces. Each silhouette, ranging from a pocket watch to a cushion case and an openwork skeleton, embodies a different interpretation of the belts he has been wearing and working into his design process since the mid-1970s.
To achieve the highest level of quality, Mr. Lauren sought out master craftsmen across the world to create the watches. The artisan who made the silver tips and heels of the cowboy boots Mr. Lauren’s wife, Ricky, wore to their son David’s wedding was the same master engraver tasked with embellishing the watch cases. Working in Manhattan’s jewelry district, he engraved (freehand, at that) a symmetrical pattern of floral motifs and zigzagging lines with high-speed steel and carbide tools. Subtle differences in the weight and placement of strokes are inherent to his process, making each piece truly one of a kind. For the skeleton watch—named for its characteristic exposed movement—he designed the main bridges and base plate with the same motifs as the case. Even the belt-inspired buckles for the leather straps are engraved, finished off with bespoke cast prongs.
When it came to aging the metal, Mr. Lauren turned to a jeweler classically trained in the art of restoring Etruscan, Byzantine, and pre-Columbian gold. Working with the rough cases, she launched into a process of sanding, polishing, painting, and waxing each one by hand over a number of days. After rounding the razor-sharp edges, she layered the patina with oxidizing solutions to achieve a warmer tone of antique silver. The gold posed more of a challenge when it came to perfecting the same heirloom look (the lower percentage of copper in gold versus silver means that blackener will settle into deep grooves but is easily polished off the surface). To solve the problem, she employed a proprietary process that accelerated the oxidation, followed by a coating of beeswax or lacquer to seal the final patina. The technique will allow the metal to continue to lighten or darken over time as it mixes with the oils on its owner’s wrist.
While the cases were being worked on, a tooler in El Paso, Texas—America’s capital of cowboy boots and exotic belts—was busy fashioning the straps. Skived to the desired weight (just thin enough not to be punctured by the stainless steel tools), vachetta leather was soaked in water to release some of the natural rigidity. As the next step, the tooler transferred a rough outline onto the leather before hammering impressions with a soft mallet. Once finished, the straps were sent to Italy for hand-burnishing and waxing before finally being assembled by a master artisan in Belgium.
And though it’s the only one without a strap, the sterling sliver pocket watch, of which only 50 will be produced, is the most exclusive, rarified piece in the collection. Created jointly by the jeweler and engraver, its cover features an antiqued gold “RL” logo and steer-head detail. Working with utmost delicacy, the engraver added lifelike definition into the mane and around the eyes, which are set with rubies—another gleaming allusion to the artistry of vintage Western rodeo buckles.
It’s this personal heritage, a spirit of intimacy and artistry connecting across time, that is at the very heart of Mr. Lauren’s American Western watch collection—created, by no accident, in the year of his 50th anniversary. “These watches have a rugged elegance and authenticity that defines the American tradition of beauty and utility,” says Mr. Lauren. “These are pieces to wear and pass on.”
Phillip B. Crook is the fashion editorial director for Ralph Lauren.