Keeping Up With The Joneses

As Told by Greg Carmack, Expert Leatherworker + Custom Bootmaker

Around these parts (Texas), Ray Jones's boots are legendary. Ray had a nice shop in Lampasas, TX. He and a small work force turned about 1000 pairs per year of custom boots. One of his staple raw materials was genuine French Calf. In fact, over half of his production was French Calf, tops and bottoms. The rest, with bottoms of pig, ostrich, kangaroo and more, had French Calf tops. He used a lot of calf. Mr. Jones passed in the mid 1980’s.

Ray Jones Boots

Vintage Ray Jones Boots for sale on Etsy

Nowadays, it seems like you see less French Calf in custom boot shops and certainly less in production boots. What happened? I have a theory. I believe that the big cowboy boot manufacturers moved away from French Calf as a raw material in favor of something cheaper. If you take a look at the purchase price for factory boots in 1980, you find that today’s price is about the same. Not corrected for present value dollars, the same prices. The only way they could do this is by cutting costs—no more French Calf.  When the big guys quit using French Calf, it became almost impossible for custom makers to obtain because custom makers normally can’t buy in tannery quantities.

The result, I believe, is a “lost” generation of makers that never understood the importance of French Calf in the cowboy boot. I talk to younger makers that say they “just never get a call for French Calf." I tell them that the reason they get few calls for French Calf is that they don’t show it to their customers. I can think of few leathers that are more fun to work with. I spoke to Pablo Jass, a maker that started his long career with Ray Jones and went out on his own when Ray quit. He let me know that the French Calf he was getting at Orion worked the same way as the “old” calf that Jones used. He also said that he would stop offering bovine boots if it ever happened that he could no longer get this calf.

I know that Mr. Jones was pretty “hard headed” when it came to his boots. I know because I own several pairs that I can look at and study anytime I want—incredible quality. I believe any custom maker out there would call 1000-plus pairs per year a success. Sometimes the keys to success don’t change. Sometimes they just “come back around”.