This craftsman created cowboy silver during Hollywood’s golden age.
Through the years, Out West has featured stories on contemporary and historic Western silversmiths. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the most unique and inventive artists to ever pick up and engraving tool: Charles Sample.
A fourth-generation silversmith, Sample was born in 1903 on the Allegheny Indian Reservation in Pennsylvania. His father was a Scottish silversmith and his mother was Iroquois. His great-grandfather was also a silversmith and made silver and gold chalices for the Vatican during the 1800s.
Sample’s family travelled to Southern California in 1916 and settled there. As a youngster, Sample sold newspapers while also making things out of metal using his father’s tools.
Realizing his passion for metal, Sample worked with some of the best artisans in the industry before graduating from high school. He started learning machinist skills and casting and sculpture techniques at the California Art Bronze Foundry. He assisted in the casting of sculptures by Montana artist Charles M. Russell under the direction of the artist’s wife, Nancy Russell. Through that experience, Sample met sculptor Joseph Nicolisi, who had studied with Gutzon Borglund, the artist who created Mount Rushmore.
In the mid-1920s, Sample started working for Swedish craftsman Edward H. Bohlin at Bohlin’s shop on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. Bohlin had tapped into the Hollywood cowboy business making intricate Western silver, saddles, bridles and anything else that stood out on the silver screen. Sample also worked with other talented craftsmen, including the journeyman silversmith and fellow tool- and die-maker Philip Fredholm. Both craftsmen made many of the two-piece die sets that formed several of Bohlin’s famous designs. These include the Sample-designed “Arizona” buckle set and the large domed sets named simply by their series number, 1100.
Sample’s most inventive designs include the silver work on the famous Bohlin Mission saddle. It features hand-chased conchos with various California missions in high relief. He also designed a telephone for actress Mae West, which he later gold plated because she disliked polishing silver.
In the 1930s, Sample left Bohlin’s shop to work for August Pachmayr and learn gun-smithing and fine, single-point engraving. Sample and Fredholm reconnected in the mid-1930s, perfecting their die-making skills and building elegant bits and spurs or Bohlin. Spurmaker Oscar Crockett usually purchased the spur blanks.
When the city of Hollywood said they could no longer use a forge in the shop, Sample became skilled at making “box spurs” with sheet silver. This involved cutting out the profiles of the spur blank and rolling/hammering the silver around the steel blank. Many silver-screen cowboy stars wanted shiny, larger-than-life spurs that accented close-up shots when they were horseback. Additionally, Sample designed some “softer” spur rowels, rather than those with pointy edges. The additional surface area was gentler on horses.
Most of the bits Sample made had grazing mouthpieces, as the engraved cheekpieces were the focus. He decorated both spurs and bits with his refined leaf and floral designs.
The Bohlin Shop had become the go-to place for Hollywood icons. Sample was quite proud that the likes of Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger himself, Clayton Moore, used his work. The shop sold elegant spade bits during the early days supplied mostly by the brothers Carlos and Jose Figueroa. (Shops at the time worked together and besides supplying bits to Bohlin, makers like the Figueroas worked for Brydon Brothers, Gilmore Saddle Company and Lichtenberger-Ferguson, among others.)
For all his talent, Sample had a well-earned reputation as a lady’s man and as a self-described rebel. Married three times, his second wife Virginia was the model who portrayed the torch-holding lady for Columbia Pictures. Sample had a temper and could be rather opinionated. At many of the shops, he worked for a while and then would be unable to come to terms with an equally opinionated owner. (In fact, Bohlin had a temper equal to Charlie’s.) Then he was either fired or pack up his tools and simply leave. But work was never far from him. His perfectionist talent carried him through rough spots. He opened several small shops in California’s San Fernando Valley, as well as in Hollywood.
The Charles Sample Company was in business for almost 20 years. Located in Hollywood, Sample had a number of friends and acquaintances in the restaurant and nightclub businesses. Philippe’s Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, known for inventing the French Dip sandwich, was one of Sample’s favorite haunts. A picture of Sample is said to hang on the wall in one of the restaurant’s narrow hallways.
The U.S. Army drafted Sample at age of 38. He served his time in the military at Camp Crowder in Missouri. His machinist skills saved him from experiencing combat, though; instead, he rode out the war repairing tele-type machines.
After his military service, Sample continued making cowboy silver. In 1952, he bought a screw press from the San Francisco Mint for coining and making medal dies for awards. Always the entrepreneur, he could reinvent himself and continue working. “Too much to do!” he would say.
His grandfather lived to be 110 years old and Charlie said he could make 100 easy. An avid outdoorsman, Sample was a black-powder hunter and created authentic period clothing for himself. He spent time with fellow silversmith/hunters Philip Fredholm and Hollywood stuntman-turned-silversmith Chuck Wilcox.
In 1970 Sample moved to Buellton, California and, about a decade later, he opened C.L. Sample Metal Arts in Paso Robles, California, which constructed and assembled metal sculptures for artists. One of his most notable constructions is artist John Jagger’s sculpture design Dandelion that Sample fabricated and installed in Los Angeles, California, on Wilshire Boulevard.
Sample returned to Buellton and then moved to be near one of his sons in Southern California. After more than 80 years of injecting design, style and innovation into Western silversmithing, he died peacefully in 2003 at age 100. Although he was a bit of a curmudgeon in his older days, he was a brilliant silver- and goldsmith who created much of the Western silver used by the early, romanticized silver-screen cowboys. That work still shines today in Western museums and private collections across America.