Jeremiah Watt’s state-of-the-art custom saddles and other handmade equine products set a high standard for the industry.
By Lynn Ascrizzi
No matter how brilliant one’s horse, the journey to attain artistic mastery inevitably takes the rider on a rocky, demanding and twisting trail.
For first-class artisan Jeremiah Watt, that arduous yet rewarding road to perfect his saddlemaking art began about 50 years ago in Dryden, Ontario, Canada, where he was raised.
A combination of youthful, risk-taking grit, along with something that only can be called the mysterious passion of the heart, spurred his native talent onward, so that at last the right doors opened and hard-earned skills were gained.
Today, Jeremiah Watt Products (JWP), the innovative, multi-faceted home-based business owned and operated by Jeremiah and Colleen Watt, is based on a ranch located about 18 miles west of Coalinga, California. The enterprise, which began around 1986, has taken root and flourished, in large part as a result of the creative spirit and dedication the Watts bring to their work and life.
The company workspace consists of two small shops, situated only 200 yards behind the Watt’s residence — one for crafting spurs, bits and leather tools, and the other for saddlemaking. Currently, the business has two employees.
JWP offers a gratifying line of exquisitely designed equine products displayed at their website, ranch2arena.com. The site’s catchy slogan is “Where Cowboys and Buckaroos Shop.”
“The website name came about because our products are used by ranch cowboys, as well as for arena events — for ropers, reiners and rodeo folks who use our bits and spurs,” said Colleen, who deftly handles the business end of the company. “They function well and are embellished with Jeremiah’s distinctive designs.”
Most sales at JWP are made online and by phone. Their stainless-steel hardware, however, is distributed through Weaver Leather of Mount Hope, Ohio. “And we do have some international distributors in Canada, Australia and Europe. JWP bits and spurs are wholesaled in a number of US stores,” she said.
“We have shipped tools even into Russia,” Jeremiah added.
“Custom-made saddles — it’s what I started out with in my life of making things by hand. It’s my first love, so to speak. But time and life have rolled a lot of other skills and interests past us, over the years,” Jeremiah, 64, said.
Besides custom and stock saddles, the JWP product line includes a broad selection of his designed and handmade bits, spurs, snaffles, conchos, silver-mounted work and jewelry.
“Out of my custom saddlemaking, I have designed and developed a complete line of Horse Shoe Brand hardware, used today by many other saddlemakers,” he noted.
“My shop is a little unusual, in that we build all the saddle trees for each handmade custom-order saddle, right here on the ranch where we live,” he continued. “We build all the hardware for those saddles and most all the tools used to make them. All things considered, that makes us very unique.”
He builds about 12 custom saddles per year. “Everything on custom saddles are made according to the customer’s specs. That’s how we roll here,” he said.
“Jeremiah is the happiest when stamping leather. His first love is his saddlemaking,” Colleen, 58, said. “He is known in the industry as an artist with unlimited designing ability. My job is to corral some of those designs and make sure they pay for themselves. We mesh pretty good together and work together well.”
How do they get the word out about the business?
“Our industry is very much word of mouth. Number one, is the website,” she explained. “Number two, is Jeremiah’s involvement with Instagram and Facebook. The biggest thing at our Instagram site is the little stories and videos. Of course, the trade shows — when they’re there — are also good. People like to hold a product to see its quality.”
Has saddlemaking grown more competitive over the years?
“I’d say that there are a lot of young, good saddlemakers all over the industry,” she replied. “There are a lot of good ones coming up. Many of them are not full-time saddlemakers. They may have a day job or work for a ranch.”
“There may be fewer saddle shops,” Jeremiah added, “but there are a lot of good, individual makers. We try to be involved with new saddlemakers and what they need. A lot of saddlemakers are buying our hardware.”
At one time, after being in business for about 18 years, the saddle shop got so backlogged that Jeremiah called his older brother, Bill, to see if he’d be interested in making plain stock saddles. He was, and the result was the creation of the division, Watt Bros. Stock Saddles.
“Bill was my only partner for about five years. His stock saddles were made and shipped, at the most, in five or six months. Then, I hired another fellow,” he said. At age 69, Bill retired from saddlemaking at the shop, but still does his own leather work.
At one time, Jeremiah’s custom saddle orders were backlogged seven years. Today, wait time is down to about 1½ years. Completed custom saddles are stamped Jeremiah Watt Saddlery. Generally, the stock saddle line is branded Watt Bros. Stock Saddles.
Custom saddles range in price from $4,500 to $15,000, depending on the embellishment desired. Stock saddles start at $4,500. The sale volume for both saddle lines is virtually even. Stock saddles are not sold off the shelf; all are made to order and shipped out.
“What kills our industry,” Colleen pointed out, “are people who undercut themselves. You want to price your work for what you’re worth, which will result in elevating everyone in the industry.”
A DIVERSE COLLECTION
JWP offers a broad and diverse product line organized into four basic divisions:
• Horse Shoe Brand Tools (HSBT) was launched in 1992. The extensive line grew out of Jeremiah’s growing saddlemaking expertise and his frustration over the limited number of quality saddle tools available at the time.
“I was basically pissed off. If you’re building an $8,000 saddle, you want an excellent flank buckle. I couldn’t find something nicer than a cheap flank buckle. I couldn’t match the color of the hardware.
“My wife said, ‘We’re going to start our own hardware company!’ We have a saying in the industry – If you want saddlemaking tools, you have three ways to get them: the womb, the tomb or the altar. In other words, you’re born into it, find tools of someone who just died or you marry into it.”
For the metal work venture, Jeremiah tapped into what he learned from his Ontario childhood. “My own family did a lot of ironwork — building things like feed bunks for cattle and flat-deck trailers. So, going from making bits and spurs to toolmaking was made easier. We’re one of the only companies in the US today building tools like the great old shops — pliers, punches, hammers — right here on the ranch.”
The result is a full selection of finely handcrafted tools for the leather trade, such as edgers, half-round punches, ticklers, stitch markers, riveting hammers, basket stamps and dozens more. “We manufacture the fullest, most complete line of leather working tools, today — all the hard-to-find items,” he said.
“He designs and makes his tools to last. You can pass them down. . . He has also innovated — like the quick-change tool in which several blades can be used with one handle. His designs are classic,” Colleen said.
The Horse Shoe Brand also offers a large collection of saddle hardware, such as conchos, buckles and decorative accents in stainless, zinc and antiqued bronze.
Within the bronze product line, for instance, HSBT offers some 110 different items —from buckles to conchos to belt loops. “There are bronze products aimed at men’s and women’s fashion belts, and buckles meant to outfit your favorite headstall,” Jeremiah said.
Altogether, there are a bountiful number of items to choose from. The stainless concho selection alone offers six website pages of designs.
• Jeremiah Watt Products (JWP) was launched around 1989. This division, which is also the overarching name of the company, offers a Jeremiah-designed collection of handmade horse bits crafted with stainless shanks and copper-inlaid, sweet-iron mouthpieces. And there is his collection of snaffle designs, including fancy ring snaffles. The JWP line also includes almost two dozen different styles of ornate West Coast-style, old-time spurs.
• DVDs — Jeremiah Watt has produced DVDs on saddlemaking, leather stamping, engraving, silversmithing and basic bit and spur making. “He enjoys sharing his knowledge,” Colleen said.
• Maker Parts lists almost two dozen, handy metal items for spur and bit makers, such as spur buttons, rowels and jingle bobs.
The glossy, full-color, 28-page JWP print catalog is free to those who ask by phone or email. The catalog will be updated in 2021.
Innovation at JWP has not been standing still, despite the COVID-19 crisis. This past January, the workshop began adding zinc and bronze hardware to its repertoire.
This year by customer demand, the company moved to develop zinc products. “We have a lot of women customers who want hardware to add color to their leather work, like chaps, bags and belts — not for the saddle. I expect it will be a very popular item,” Jeremiah said.
This past summer, about 28 items in zinc were posted at their website. Forty more zinc and bronze items were still in the cutting and tooling stage. Jeremiah designs and makes the masters, which are then manufactured.
“Zinc,” he explained, “can be plated with different colors. Roughly 60 different hues are available to give different tones. There are seven different alloys of zinc. Only three are high-quality alloys.”
Zinc has long been used for small accessory items, like the buckles that hold a purse shut, he pointed out. “Zinc hardware is not put where you’ll get the hardest of uses. It’s not used on rigging plates, for instance,” he said, referring to the D-rings used on both sides of a western saddle to strap the saddle on the horse.
“Like anything plated, the plating is microscopically thin. Zinc’s underlying color is a dull gray. It’s beautiful when you add the plating. We’re using zinc that is equal in strength to yellow brass,” he added.
Gaining knowledge about zinc and other metals means digging into research. “Colleen and I spend a lot of time in the evenings reading boring books on metallurgy,” he said, with humor.
Also, he has recently created two new mouthpieces and two new spur designs. And, he has introduced new sharpening plates — an easier way for folks to keep their tools sharp. At this time, the new items are to be showcased at WESA (Western & English Sales Association), set for January 14 – 17, 2021, in Dallas, Texas.
The big show is the place to be for breaking lines and new designs. As of July, Colleen believed the January event was a go, although the unpredictable COVID crisis might change that. If the show isn’t a go, she added, people can check out the New Products link on their website to see the newly designed items.
Jeremiah does not take custom orders for his silver-mounted bits, she noted, and has not done so for 30 years. “They are built and sold as they get done, each bit a little different from the others. He uses all the same rare elements, as did the old-time makers — good steel and silver combined with time, patience and skill.”
TEACHING THE CRAFT
Jeremiah is JWP’s sole custom saddlemaker and silversmith. For over 30 years, he has shared his silversmithing skills by teaching engraving at the renowned GRS Training School (GRSTC), a division of Glendo, LLC, in Emporia, Kansas. For 43 years, the company has been designing, developing and manufacturing innovative hand tools for the jewelry and engraving arts. However, because of the pandemic, classes are closed for now.
“Jeremiah is working on a pretty saddle for Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada,” Colleen said. The center’s annual event was created to celebrate the archived songs and music of the cowboy genre, she explained. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, the annual Elko event, to be held in January 2021, has been cancelled. Nonetheless, Jeremiah’s new saddle will be on display at the folklife center that month.
“We’ve done work for those people for about 14 years,” he noted. “Every year my wife and I had put on an equine gear show. We’ve quit, so we could concentrate on the wholesale business and the Horse Shoe Tool Brand.”
Although the virus crisis has cancelled many important shows and events, ironically, it has been having an unexpected beneficial effect on JWP’s online sales.
“We have been blessed,” Colleen said. “With so many people having to stay home, they’re doing some at-home jobs. They’re working on projects that they haven’t done before. Sales are up.”
“We’re building the best,” Jeremiah added. “Whatever we build today is better than what we built yesterday.”
The long, but serendipitous trail that led to Jeremiah Watt’s hard-won, saddlemaking career, first beckoned when he was a teenager. Energetic and restless, he felt compelled to move from his home in Ontario, Canada, to Manitoba to take a high school course in agriculture. He stayed with his parents’ friends, Calvin and Mavis Stewart, who were avid horse and rodeo folks.
Leatherwork entered the picture around the early 1970s, when he and his older brother, Bill, who had been working in Ontario logging camps, took a one-year saddlemaking course at Texas State Technological School in Amarillo. The brothers worked for a year to save for tuition.
“If it hadn’t been for that saddle school, we wouldn’t have had a chance to get into saddle work. Doing work with our hands especially appealed to Bill and me — more than working in an office,” he said. Also, his new saddle-building skills reinforced his love of being around horses. “It keeps you involved with the kind of people I like to be involved with,” he added.
After saddle school, he drifted here and there in a fruitless search for work in a saddle workshop, a hunt that had him traveling to Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. Finally, after his job search came up empty, he headed back to Canada.
But then, fortune smiled. In Calgary, Alberta, he found work with a master saddlemaker. The positive connection turned into an eight-year apprenticeship, during which he virtually lived night and day in the shop. “For the first four years, I worked on saddles during the day and in the evening, built bits and spurs,” he recalled. For more than four years, he slept on the shop floor to save money.
As he picked up valuable know-how in the Calgary workshop, his thoughts turned to Manitoba and the Stuart family’s spirited young daughter, Colleen. “I grew up with her family,” Watt, 64, reminisced.
“When I graduated from high school in 1980, I chose to go to the University of Calgary to study business administration,” Colleen said. “I chose Calgary because Jeremiah was there. Within two years, we were married. I have a BS degree in accounting. I’ve used that in our business.”
They married in August, 1982. After his apprenticeship in Calgary, the newlyweds, who both loved being around horses, found ranch work in Alpine, Texas.
Their travels also took them to the workshop of famed saddlemaker Dale Harwood of Shelley, Idaho. Jeremiah was able to work in Harwood’s shop to build a saddle for the first annual exhibition, Trappings of the American West, held at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, Arizona.
For a while, he and Colleen worked on ranch jobs in summer. In winter, Jeremiah built saddles and bits. Along the way, he learned how to make silver mounts and inlays on bits and spurs. Later, he set up a shop on a ranch in Paicines, California; at that stage, he built saddle trees for his saddles.
In 1991, the winding trail that helped him acquire priceless, hands-on saddlemaking expertise, at last led the Watts to central California, to settle on a ranch in Coalinga.
The couple’s shared journey brought them two homeschooled, now-grown children, Nevada, 27, and Pine, 29.
“I have children that I love dearly, more than a good Lab,” their dad joked. “Nevada has helped me teach engraving at GRS Training School (GRSTC) in Emporia, Kansas.”
“Nevada is married to a fifth-generation rancher,” her mom said. “She has her own silverwork business and runs a lot of cattle on the big ranch.” The Watt’s son, Pine, is the head label designer at Bare Bottle Brewery in San Francisco, she added.
“Our kids, who were homeschooled, are carrying on their own individual idea of entrepreneurship. They each have their own interests. We’re not a 9-to-5 family,” she said.
Jeremiah Watt Products (JWP)
47069 Crump Lane
Coalinga, CA 93210
Facebook — Jeremiah Watt