William Wirtel and his wife, with son, Miles, and daughter, Anna.

The Handlers

The Family Behind Santa Fe Stone Works

by Joshua Rose

If it can fit onto a knife handle, William Wirtel knows about it. Not only does he know about it, but he’s probably searched for it, tracked it down, dug it up, cut it, studied it and used it for the handle of one of the 40,000 and growing number of knives he sells a year through his business, Santa Fe Stoneworks.

Wirtel moved to Santa Fe — a place he refers to as his “piece of heaven” — in the late 60s and began making a living in the jewelry business.  When he looked around and noticed that the town was filled with people making jewelry, he decided to do something else. He took the inlay process he had learned and applied it to making knives. Forty-two years later and now joined by his daughter Anna and son Miles, he is creating specialized products for brands like Shinola (headquartered in Denver) and Boker (in Germany).

Wirtel reflects on the decision to pass the business along to his children. “I’m seventy-seven now, and so I come in late and leave early. When I thought about turning my company over to them, we brought in a consultant. The consultant told me that ninety-five percent of the time that ends up failing. Six months later, the consultant pulled me aside and told me that I was fortunate to have two people — Anna and Miles — who were smart enough to make this work. And I’m still very proud of that.” The family-run business has survived the ebb and flow of the luxury gift economy for decades, creating and inventing many wonderful accessories along the way.

A woman at work at the grinding wheel.
Anna at work at the grinding wheel.

Have you ever heard of Fordite? How about Jeepite or Corvetteite? Didn’t think so.

Before 1985, new cars were spray-painted in the factory. Each vehicle was towed through the spray booth by a series of hooks and pullies, and while the cars found new homes across America, paint accumulated on the factory machinery. The layers of paint grew thicker and thicker until someone had the idea to chip them off and sell them — in all their multilayered glory — to businesses like Wirtel’s. Now, if you want a custom pocketknife with a handle made out of a “gemstone” that’s actually 1980s Ford paint, Santa Fe Stoneworks has you covered.

“Somebody just saved buckets of this stuff and we found it,” says Wirtel. “Each piece is composed of about fifty layers of paint, and each one is completely unique. The beauty of this is that we don’t know what we will get until we start grinding. Gearheads love them, and so do we.”

Another material Santa Fe Stoneworks is known for is dinosaur bone. In the late 80s, Wirtel discovered a prospector in Durango, Colorado, who struck out in search of uranium but found heaps of dinosaur bones instead. Wirtel bought his complete collection.

One-of-a-kind knives handcrafted by Santa Fe Stoneworks.
One-of-a-kind knives handcrafted by Santa Fe Stoneworks.
Dinosaur bone that will be used for inlay work.
William examines a dinosaur bone that will be used for inlay work.

Wirtel then discovered an additional motherload of dinosaur bone in the remote outpost of Hanksville, Utah. “There was a guy there who owned a rock shop, and we started working with him when he was eighty years old. He died four days short of his ninetieth birthday, and we were still working with him at that time,” reflects Wirtel. “But once a year we would buy an entire season’s worth of dinosaur bone. We have a special machine to cut it, and it’s really one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. We have it in red, yellow, blue and green because it becomes whatever colors were in the water with it.  So, now when someone wants a knife with a handle made of 150-million-year-old dinosaur bone, they come to us.”

But William isn’t the only Wirtel discovering new elements to incorporate into Santa Fe Stonework’s diverse offerings. Several years ago, Miles went to a trade show in Germany and met a contingent from Denmark who had developed a way to stabilize wooly mammoth tooth, tusk and bone.  Santa Fe Stoneworks initially began buying it directly from the Danish company, but soon formed an exclusive LLC with them to become the sole distributor of their wooly mammoth products in North America. “We just had never seen anything like it before,” says Wirtel. “We bought similar material out of Texas, but it would fall apart immediately. Once my son became good friends with them, we were able to start producing not just custom knives [from the wooly mammoth products], but also pool cues, gun handles, custom grips — all sorts of new products.”

For Wirtel, running a business in Santa Fe is all about family, and he’s proud to have raised two children in The City Different who have become both important assets to the local art community, as well as his business partners at Santa Fe Stoneworks. “They grew up here,” says Wirtel. “And now the three of us are a wonderful working team. During the day we scream, yell, cry and stomp our feet, but at the end of the day we love each other.”

Joshua Rose
Contributor

Joshua Rose is currently a Senior Vice President at the Santa Fe Art Auction, responsible for Native Art and Fine Art. Previously, he spent the last 15 years as the editor of American Art Collector, Western Art Collector, Native American Art Magazine and American Fine Art Magazine. He currently resides in Santa Fe and Phoenix, Arizona.

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