Silver Lining Family
For more than 40 years, Olson Silver Company in High River, Alta., has been a mainstay of silversmithing through western Canada, and a new family plan will see the business through the next generation — and perhaps beyond. It’s a plan that will bring Olson’s golden moments for the future.
Silversmithing isn’t a common art, but it’s a huge and ongoing part of the Olson family history.
“I learned it from my father,” says Butch (Rod) Olson. “I started part time when I was 14.”
His father Jim bought Frank Phillips’ silversmithing business in 1968 in Calgary, Alta., and moved the newly re-christened Olson Silver Company south to High River a year later. A decade later in 1978, Butch and his sister Denise Fraser bought their father out. Butch in turn bought out Denise when she retired in 2005, and then sold the business last year to his stepson, Greg Hitchner and business partner Richard Brooks. Greg soon decided to buy out his partner and once again, Butch found himself back in the shop.
“I thought I wanted to retire,” laughs Butch. “It’s working good. I’m retired now and I’ve got a fulltime job.”
His career as a silversmith has spanned 40 years, developing sterling silver and gold jewellery.
“For most people that’s a fairly long career,” Butch says.
The sale to Greg was part of Butch’s secession plan, and took place over a period of five years.
The revised retirement plan wasn’t a big sacrifice. Butch had been spending a lot of time in Phoenix, and was able to spend more time team roping, but he knows that retirement isn’t really something that will sit well with him.
“I’m not too worried about it. I’ve got horses at home and I can keep busy.”
“I can come and go here as I please, once the work is done. It’s a relaxed work week, so to speak,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 per cent retired. My father worked until he couldn’t. He’d still be here, if he was alive.”
New owner Greg also plans on making a life career from the business he knows well; he’d worked in the shop after school when he was a teenager before heading off to University of Lethbridge where he took his business management degree. In 1997 he returned to the family business. Other than a school-time job delivering pizzas, he’s always worked for Olson Silver, and has always loved the work.
“Back then, Butch bought me a set of golf clubs, and told me I could come work and pay them off,” Greg recalls with a smile. He was hooked.
Butch says he thinks “getting hooked” often happens. People start to learn the art of silversmithing, they get involved with the craft, evolve with it, and it becomes a way of life.
“What made me decide to buy it? Butch said I could,” laughs Greg.
It’s become a lifetime commitment. Greg still plays golf, so Butch’s deal has worked well, considering more than 20 years has passed since that original deal. As a matter of fact, Greg says he’s a bit of a golf-aholic, and strongly believes that the store will continue at its present location — perfectly centralized for the western population throughout southern Alberta.
After Denise retired, Greg took over the front end, with the clientele, and the computer graphics side of the work.
This gives him good insight on where the trends are heading. For example, tri-colour still remains popular, and Olson’s carries four or five new styles to reflect this. The company has had contracts for the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association, and for the Calgary Stampede Royalty committee, to name just a few.
So what are their favourite pieces? It’s hard to pinpoint one, but one outstanding buckle was custom made for Lara Palmer on behalf of Millarville Ride for Stars in recognition of her 20 years of organizing the event. “It is so nice to make a buckle for such a deserving cause and inspirational person,” adds Greg.
Olson buckles has also become popular with the growing movie and television action in the High River area, and has created celebrity buckles for stars such as Jackie Chan, when he was filming Shanghai Knights.
Greg is using his education to usher the business into a new era. The store has a new website, and Greg is looking towards the global market that the site and e-commerce will provide him.
Because many of his clients are agriculturally-based, they often can’t drop their work in order to travel to the store. The website provides them with the ability to order their custom-designed silver works from the comfort of their home.
New technology even allows them to transfer designs to the computer, and create 3-D imaging of the work. For example, Olson’s was creating a buckle for the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon canvas auction. The design incorporates Calgary’s skyline 3-D etched into the background.
“The potential for design are enormous,” says Greg. “We’re working to get more efficient. But no matter what we do, you need the hands-on workmanship.”
Butch is doing the hand-craftsmanship now. Greg says that he can see two distinctly different lines emerging in Olson Silver — the production line, and the handmade custom buckles, with engraving and overlays with initials, brands, stones, rope edging and more at the request of the client.
“I put in a lot of hours, but it balances out. It’s a great way to balance family,” says Greg, allowing him the flexibility to work the hours needed at the store, and also gives him the opportunity to travel to hockey games with his 12-year-old son, Brayden. Greg is involved in coaching and hockey training, and hopes for the days when he might have time to start team roping like Butch.
Brayden is now also looking with interest at the silver shop, wanting to try his hand at the family craft, bringing possibilities for Olson Silver to continue its legacy through a fourth generation.
Sheena (Fleming) Read grew up in the hills west of Nanton, learning to love the land and the history that surrounded her.