John Rippel traveled coast to coast before deciding to settle in Santa Fe for its incomparable beauty. It was 1968; the now-acclaimed designer and silversmith was just out of college with a degree in anthropology and a trunkful of the belts, bags, and clothing pieces he was making at the time. Santa Fe proved to be a great place to peddle his leather goods — for a while.
“After a few years, I got bored with the same form,” Rippel says, “and there was so much beautiful jewelry in Santa Fe. One thing my anthropology degree did was get me in to see the 19th-century museum collections here.” The young artist was so inspired, in fact, by what he found among the collections of the City Different’s museums that he decided to try his hand at a different type of accessory, made from a different type of material. Swapping fine leathers for precious metals, Rippel taught himself silversmithing and began “copying the style, but not the designs, of the individual pieces.”
In the ’70s, Rippel became interested in buckle sets for the challenge of making three different shapes with a coordinated design flowing coherently throughout. Right off the bat, his buckles were a huge hit: “It became a runaway thing — everybody had to have one.” When people started coming to his store wanting sets to take back to the city for business clothes, Rippel worked on some contemporary, cleaner designs. Lately he’s gotten into hand-engraving: “It’s a very classic look.”
You’ll find Rippel plying his trade in his store on the lower level of La Fonda on the Plaza — where he also churns out eye-catching rings, bracelets, neckwear and bolos, and silver beads. But his buckle sets continue to be an in-demand mainstay. Alongside his own works, Rippel also showcases handblown glassware by fellow Santa Fean Bob Hazeltine, the exotic leather and mixed-metal designs of fellow self-taught jeweler Andy Callahan, “fantastic” nature-inspired leather goods by Lou Guerin, gold jewelry from Valerie Naifeh, stamped silver pieces by Navajo artist Tom Dewitt, as well as the perennially popular Santa Fe Storywheels charms and link bracelets.
After you’re done shopping, Rippel suggests taking the elevator from the La Fonda basement to the bell tower for a bite to eat and a drink. If you find yourself regretting that you couldn’t find a bracelet just like the one he was wearing — a piece he made back in 1973 that has become his everyday accessory — don’t worry. “People comment on it all the time,” Rippel says, “and I’ve re-created it several times, though you can’t really re-create a one-of-a-kind piece.”