A Jewelry Maker With Sole
Theresa Wangia's great-great-grandfather made buffalo Bill's Boots, and today she continues artisanal craftsmanship through her own bespoke work in leather
History echoes through the work of Theresa Wangia, founder of Beltshazzar Jewels. Her pieces have a talismanic quality, evoking timeless voyages and the totems of nomads who embark on them. Wangia’s creations embrace a multiplicity of cultures and emote a bold spirit of adventure, which she achieves by combining diverse materials—stones, vintage brass, bone and horn, even fossilized coral—with supple leather. “We all use what materials are available to us and the history we have, what’s in our DNA, to say something about who we are, who we want to be,” says Wangia.
In her case, the tradition of leather working is very much in her DNA: her great-great-grandfather, Charles Frederick Luke, was a cobbler. His shop, C.F. Luke’s Lady’s & Gents Fine Boots & Shoes, established in 1875 in Seneca, Missouri, made and mended footwear for travelers passing through, supplying the Wild West with a thousand pairs of shoes a year. “It was a family story passed down,” says Wangia. “He repaired moccasins for Native Americans, he repaired Jesse James’ boots, and he made boots for Buffalo Bill.”
These were only stories until Wangia’s cousin William Wulfert researched their family’s genealogy. Now they know that the “sole doctor,” as his family affectionately knows him, was under contract for years, indeed creating the boots that William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody wore.
But Wangia wasn’t thinking about her ancestry when she founded Beltshazzar Jewels. She was creating out of a need to express herself and out of a lifetime of wanderlust. She spent her 20s modeling and traveling the world, absorbing every culture she encountered and nurturing a love of adventure. She always made jewelry on the side and in her early 30s took an apprenticeship with a London jeweler before returning to her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, the Gateway to the West. She started a family and settled down but eventually came back to jewelry. “I pulled out a lot of stuff I’d collected, laid it out and let it sit,” she says. “One day I sat down and made a necklace.”
She never stopped creating. Her process often starts with sketches, but the real magic happens on the workbench, when unexpected combinations of materials or a quality of the light sparks inspiration. In itself, the process is a sort of journey, as is Wangia’s path to becoming an artist. In one of her earliest memories, Wangia rifled through her mother’s jewelry box. “I remember thinking, ‘When I get older I’m going to make jewelry like this, but in gold,’” says Wangia. “What did I know? But even a 6-year-old can have a dream that might actually come true.”
Today, her jewelry is featured across the country, is found in the collection of fashion icon Fern Mallis, and is often on display at the Western Design Conference, where she first showed in 2015. “I fell in love with Jackson Hole,” she says. “The American West is in my soul.” Not far away, in Cody, Wyoming, in a drawer behind the vault doors of the Buffalo Bill Museum, there is a pair of tall riding boots, their heels worn down from use. The archivists allowed Wangia to hold them. Inside one, she found a small, repaired rip. “I was giddy, like a kid,” she says. “It’s hard to describe. I felt something, a connection. It was electric.”