You can watch "Crafting a Living" online at https://video.idahoptv.org/video/crafting-a-living-xgp3qz/
Cary Schwarz grew up in Gerome County in Idaho. Today he's widely recognized as one of the top custom saddle makers in America, and was named Saddle Maker of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists in 2009. He's also a founding member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association.
Cary's love for leather working began when he was young. His parents gave him a Tandy Leather Kit for Christmas when he was 12 years old, and he was immediately hooked. His first professional leather working job came at 19 when he was hired to work in a holster shop. His dream job followed a few years later when he bought out an old custom saddle maker and opened up his own shop.
"I started in business for myself on April 1 of 1984, downtown in Salmon, Idaho," Cary says. "I had a little retail store with a manufacturing shop in back. It was a one man operation. When I found a home with this vocation, I knew this was it. This is what I was called to do." But, it wasn't long before Cary realized retail wasn't his cup of tea. He seemed to be more comfortable with cowboys and outfitters than with shopkeepers and businessmen. "I ultimately wanted to be a saddle maker, I didn’t want to be a merchant. So, I took the leap and got rid of the inventory and moved off of Main Street."
He's carved out a very successful niche for himself out his home-based shop, delivering saddles to clients across the USA as well as to several countries. He's also developed a robust web and social media presence. "Social media has changed the way we do business. The world comes to your door with the internet these days," Cary says with a smile.
If you set web pages and social media aside, it's clear that Cary has remained reliably oldschool in the way he approaches his craft. "Leather, to me is one of those unique fibers that’s just been around thousands of years. It’s authentic. The smell of it, the feel of it, the quality of it. It’s just a fantastic medium. They’ve not been able to replicate that with any kind of synthetic material."
One thing that sets Cary apart from many other custom saddle makers is the way he carves his leather. He doesn't use templates. So, does that make him more than a craftsman? "Generally speaking, saddle makers don’t consider themselves artists. They consider themselves craftsman," Cary exclaims . Although, I will say this, I would answer to both."
Cary believes the best saddles are a successful blend of function and art, saying "A saddle that's not functional is simply not a saddle. It's not usable by someone. And, it just enhances the whole experience when you're using a saddle that's also beautiful to look at. That's a unique combination."