Fashion / Style File

The King of Belt Buckles

Houston Craftsman Turns Overlooked Staple Into Unique Treasures in a Museum-Worthy Shop

BY // 03.03.16
photography Jenny Antill Clifton

Jason Maida has made me passionate about buckles. Belt buckles, to be exact. A wardrobe staple to which I never gave much thought until I met the 44-year-old craftsman several months ago in his store, Maida’s Belts & Buckles. Store? It’s more a cross between a museum and a cabinet of curiosities — beautiful cases and shelves filled with silver and gold and turquoise and leather and coins; every surface is populated with objects that call for your attention and respect — with Maida presiding as a slightly eccentric and knowledgeable guide to such topics as the intricacies of alligator skin to Republic of Texas currency and, yes, buckles.

Maida hails from a long line of artisans. In 1906, his great-grandfather, John L. Maida, originally from Sicily, found a position repairing shoes at a downtown Houston shop, and a few years later established Maida & Cuccia Shoe Repair, having developed into a cobbler. His son and grandson, Salvador and John, followed in his footsteps, and Houston Shoe Hospital was born. Jason was trained in the family shoe repair shops, with three generations of skill and craftsmanship as his foundation. He learned fast, and he and leather set off on a career-making adventure.

But Jason had much more than shoe repair in mind. “In high school, I made a belt and put a buckle on it, and a friend liked it and asked me to make one for him,” he says. “I did, and he paid me $50 for it. That was that. I knew what I wanted to do.”

Jason Maida’s workshop is a clean and well-lighted place.

The concept of family is key to this story. It seems that young Jason was a born historian, always looking in drawers and stacks of papers for chapters and vignettes of the Maida story. Deeds, leases, watches, letters, pieces of jewelry: They all held secrets and clues, and Maida was listening.

“Even at 10 and 11, I was considered the family historian, and loved to pick up objects that belonged to my aunts and uncles and grandparents,” Maida says. “My grandfather had a belt buckle that I really liked, but he wouldn’t give it to me. That’s probably the spark that started my buckle journey.”

His grandfather told him to go see a man who dealt in buckles, who in turn told Maida to scour antique shops, flea markets and garage sales, where buckles of myriad styles and vintages were hiding in plain sight. Maida studied the designs and their construction, learned to identify the silversmith markings, and developed an intuitive sense of an item’s provenance. He learned to identify whether a buckle was made in Louisiana or Chicago, and committed to memory the histories of the companies and craftspeople behind the buckles. In 1990, Maida, then 19, took his knowledge and opened Maida’s Belts & Buckles, setting up shop in a corner of his uncle’s store in Clear Lake, a mile from NASA’s Space Center Houston. The enterprise thrived — so much so that, in 2006, Maida moved his business and workshop to a much larger location on Westheimer Road in the Galleria area. His collection had a home.

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And, what a collection it is: nearly 2,000 vintage and modern belt buckles fashioned from gold, silver and bronze; rare, one-of-a kind buckles, giant, bold buckles that would make the dandiest cowboy proud, as well as more refined and intricate examples – not to mention necklaces, bracelets and earrings made of of turquoise and silver and gold, cuff links crafted  from gold-filled quartz mined in Australia, and money clips studded with historic currency and diamonds. Maida still designs many of his pieces, and can often be found in his workshop, sketching or cutting, hands smeared with leather polish.

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“I keep the Western tradition alive though buckles,” Maida told me during a recent dinner. “Some do it through studying and collecting saddles or spurs or boots, but buckles speak to me.” They speak to his customers as well, among them Robert Duvall, Kid Rock and myriad oil executives who trade in Zegna for jeans, boots, and cowboy hats for weekends on their ranches.

“Now I have the experience of welcoming long-time clients and their children or grandchildren into the store and helping them pick out graduation and wedding gifts,” Maida says. “It’s the best part of my job, because I can see that something I designed and made is on the way to becoming a family heirloom.”

Maida employs a small team of artisans in his workshop, specialists in leather weaving and sewing and metalwork. They take his drawings and produce works of utilitarian art meant to be worn and used daily — though that does not stop some of his customers from collecting Maida’s creations as just that, art.

Jason Maida is a curator, a keeper of the past.

Maida also deals in buckles made by some of the oldest names going, such as Bohlin and Comstock Heritage. Belts made in Mexico sit alongside ones made from bison, python, cow and elephant, handcrafted in the Maida workshop. Silver buckles from the 1940s reside next to diamond-studded gold buckles designed by Maida. A large turquoise inventory gleams next to a rich selection of wallets. A stroll through the store is an adventure; when you visit, ask to see the workshop. It’s a timeless marvel, with tools belonging to Maida’s great-grandfather still in use today.

Maida is a people person, full of genuine excitement about places and things. Ask him about the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and his response — which will go on for nearly 10 minutes and should be trademarked by the rodeo marketing committee — makes one ready to learn cattle roping. He once showed me an ancient Roman clasp that he owns and became so animated speculating on which senator might have worn it that, returning home that evening, I immediately pulled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the shelf and began reading. When he takes an interest in something, he doesn’t stop until he has learned as much as he can about it. (I dare you to ask him about branding irons.)

Therein lies the passion mentioned earlier, and my newfound interest in belt buckles: Maida’s knowledge of their history, of their place in the world alongside things of beauty that we use daily, such as fountain pens and watches, has won me over. I’m fascinated with their beginnings and evolution and have decided to be much more discriminating when I add belts and buckles to my wardrobe. And I know a perfect little place in which to find some great ones.

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