The origin and history of Black Hills Gold jewelry is surrounded by legends and tall tales, but how did Black Hills Gold jewelry really come into existence? To find out, one needs to travel back in time over 150 years ago to the wild frontier mining camps of the American West.
In 1849, the big gold strikes in California attracted not only prospectors, but also traders and artisans who followed the booms throughout the West. Among them were emigrant jewelers who made the hard crossing from the East, having labored for months over the dangerous plains and desolate high deserts of the heartland to arrive in the fertile Sacramento Valley. A common practice in the jeweler's trade at the time was to craft jewelry from gold in the same camp where it was mined, with a single grape leaf traditionally used as a design. Nature has always been a design inspiration, and in finding abundant grapes growing there, the craftsmen were moved to expand the traditional design to include clustered leaves and fruit.
"The single grape leaf had been used in decorations, Mr. Butler said, but the clustered leaves and fruit of the golden state jewelers was entirely their own," described Estelline Bennet, author of the 1935 book "Old Deadwood Days" and a Chicago newspaperwoman. She was born in Deadwood, South Dakota and had conversations with early craftsmen like George M. Butler, second generation maker of Black Hills Gold. 1
These artisans followed the prospectors and big strikes from California to Colorado, Montana, and finally, the Black Hills of South Dakota. The grape leaves were produced in green gold and in red gold when the design arrived in the Black Hills. Silver was alloyed with the yellow gold to produce the green hue, and copper was alloyed with the yellow gold to make the red or pink gold.
Talk of gold discovery in the Black Hills was one of the reasons an 1874 expeditionary force of one thousand men was led by the infamous George Armstrong Custer into the Black Hills area. The 1000-square-mile Black Hills region was held sacred by the Lakota and other Native American tribes. A few months after the Custer expedition's arrival, a man with the group named Horatio N. Ross discovered gold along French Creek in the central Black Hills. One of the last great North American gold rushes inevitably followed.
White settlement of the region increased dramatically with the discovery of gold. The towns of Deadwood, Central City and Lead (pronounced "leed") grew out of this Wild West era of prospectors, saloons, and legendary figures like Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.
Lloyd West, in his account for the Lawrence County Historical Society, described the early history of Black Hills Gold jewelry history:
"In 1876, J. B. LeBau (LeBeaux) and another man by the last name of King had set up shop in Central City, South Dakota, one of the many camps and towns surrounding the gold rush town of Deadwood. They had brought the design with them from other western gold camps. Two years later, in 1878, Charles Barclay and S. T. Butler, who brought additional design patterns with him from Virginia City, Montana, set up their own jewelry shop in Central City. Barclay continued his jewelry business in Central City and later, Lead, until 1896.
But it is S. T. Butler who is generally accepted as the father of what is known today as Black Hills Gold jewelry.
Butler, with his old kerosene torch for soldering and handmade punches, fashioned the traditional design using red, green and yellow gold. Grape leaves, grape bunches, cuttings from grapevines and tendrils were all assembled by hand into the specialized and unique jewelry. The original Black Hills Gold jewelry manufacturing business established by Butler was in continuous production by his descendants through four generations after him.
The business S. T. Butler established in 1878 in Central City was purchased by his son George M. Butler. For the rest of his days in business, George was content with the local scope of his retail business and the wholesale business of nearby towns. Production methods and the number of designs changed little from when his father ran the shop. This was to change with the next generation.
F. L. (Frank) Thorpe was the grandson of S. T. Butler and nephew of George M. Butler. Raised by his grandparents since the age of four, it was at that time in 1886 that Thorpe first viewed Black Hills Gold jewelry in his grandfather's original shop. In 1902, his uncle George sent him to the Bradley Horological Institute (Horology is the art of making timepieces), where Thorpe learned watch work, diamond setting, engraving, optics, steel tempering and die sinking. In 1908, George purchased the Kittlesby Jewelry store in Deadwood for his nephew. Thorpe took his new business only three miles away, to the town of Lead, where he set up shop. Butler and Thorpe manufactured Black Hills Gold jewelry in separate shops for many years, each for himself, but not in competition. George assisted his nephew by furnishing tools, gold material and money to help him get established.
F. L. Thorpe changed the manufacturing and distribution of Black Hills Gold jewelry. Using his acquired skills and knowledge from the Bradley Horological Institute, he made numerous, significant improvements. Newer production methods were implemented using modern equipment, including labor and timesaving steel dies. Over 600 new and special designs were created without changing the basic grape and leaf design in three colors of gold. Finally, he expanded the trade territory of Black Hills Gold jewelry by finding new retail accounts to sell it. His influence is still visible in the designs manufactured today, with many remaining virtually unchanged." 2
Also in the early 1900's, Frank Thorpe's brother, Clarence, ran a small shop in Lead with several employees. In 1919, Clarence sold his shop to his brother Frank and Edward O. Lampinen, an employee of Clarence's. Frank Thorpe and Lampinen formed a partnership under the name F.L. Thorpe Company. During the 1920's they had a manufacturing plant on Lee Street in Deadwood. Hard times fell upon the company, and the partnership of Thorpe and Lampinen was dissolved. Lampinen operated his own shop in Deadwood under the name of Black Hills Jewelry Manufacturing. F.L. Thorpe Company also continued operating separately.
Louise Thorpe-Waters, daughter of F. L. Thorpe and great-granddaughter of S. T. Butler, ran the operation with her husband Charles and daughter Nancy from 1933 to 1969. Nancy Lee Waters represents the fifth generation of S. T. Butler's descendants to carry on the business. In 1969, Lloyd and Betty West purchased the F. L. Thorpe Co. and carried on the heritage of the original company for several decades.
In 1944, Ivan Landstrom bought Black Hills Jewelry Manufacturing from E.O. Lampinen, including equipment, tools and inventory. Landstrom moved the firm from Deadwood to Rapid City and continued to operate under the name of Black Hills Jewelry Manufacturing, manufacturers of Landstrom's Original Black Hills Gold Creations. After Ivan Landstrom passed away in 1968, Milton Shaver took over day to day operations and ran the company for the two surviving daughters of Landstrom, Mary Jo and Connie. Dr. Charles Lein and others subsequently managed operations for several years. In 1995, Black Hills Gold jewelry history had traveled full circle. F.L. Thorpe Company, the original manufacturer of Black Hills gold jewelry, was purchased by Landstrom's Original Black Hills Gold Creations. In 1998 Connie Landstrom Drew, daughter of Ivan Landstrom, took over the company. After her passing, Connie's daughter and son continued to head the company formed by her father sixty years ago.
The formation of another manufacturing company started after an employee of Edward O. Lampinen's, Clara Arnold, learned the art of making Black Hills Gold jewelry from him and other relatives of S.T. Butler. Arnold chose to go out on her own after the company was purchased by Ivan Landstrom. By the 1940's she was making her own Black Hills gold jewelry on Main St. in Rapid City. In 1959, Arnold sold her tools and inventory to Mr. and Mrs. Edward F. Stamper and the company has since operated under the name Stamper Genuine Black Hills Gold Jewelry. In an industry filled with family tradition, Stampers' son Rod Stamper, who took over from his father, recently passed the reigns on to the third generation, with E. Jason Stamper currently in the position of president of Stamper Jewelry, Inc.
The 1980's brought many changes to the Black Hills Gold jewelry industry. Newcomers to the Black Hills Gold jewelry manufacturing industry began appearing. Numerous companies attempted to use the traditional Black Hills Gold design to manufacture jewelry outside the Black Hills at facilities in other states, and call it "Black Hills Gold." After a lawsuit filed by Stamper, Landstrom's and Thorpe, U. S. District Court Judge Andrew Bogue ruled in 1980 that if a manufacturer wanted to call its jewelry Black Hills Gold, it must be made in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Companies are "permanently enjoined from advertising, promoting, selling or offering for sale" any product as Black Hills Gold or Black Hills Gold Jewelry unless it is manufactured in the Black Hills of South Dakota.3
Several new companies were born in the Black Hills after this, including South Dakota Gold, Mount Rushmore and Coleman. These new manufacturers brought increased competition and new styles to the marketplace, branching out the original vines of Black Hills Gold tradition. In 2010, South Dakota Gold went out of business and its designs were sold to Mount Rushmore Gold. In March 2014, Mount Rushmore Gold also purchased the oldest remaining manufacturer's designs -- Landstrom's Original Black Hills Gold Creations. Over 130 years of Black Hills Gold history have moved to a new home. In 2015, TR Jewelry Concepts was created as the new parent company for what were formerly independently-owned Black Hills Gold manufacturing companies: Landstroms, Mount Rushmore Gold, and South Dakota Gold designs are all being produced at the same factory in Rapid City, SD, gateway city to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Most recently, in February 2017, Black Hills Gold Jewelry by Coleman also closed its doors, and plans are in place for TR Jewelry Concepts to begin manufacturing those designs later in 2017.
Countless small upstarts have come and gone over the years. All of them were trying to gain a foothold in the marketplace of an industry that has seen many changes, but the one constant throughout has been the traditional design of Black Hills Gold jewelry -- brought to the Black Hills over 150 years ago, improved by early craftsmen, and still handmade by modern artisans carrying on the tradition today.
Sources used for our "History of Black Hills Gold Jewelry" page:
1 From Old Deadwood Days by Estelline Bennet, copyright 1935. Her conversation with George M. Butler, son of S.T. Butler. Estelline was an author and Chicago newspaperwoman, born in Deadwood, SD. Died in 1948.
2 By Lloyd West, "F. L. Thorpe Family, F. L. Thorpe Company" From Some History of Lawrence County, Lawrence County Historical Society.
3 "Black Hills Gold manufacturers win trade name case" Rapid City Journal, 05/02/80.
Black Hills Jewelry Manufacturing Co., a South Dakota corporation; F. L. Thorpe Company, a South Dakota corporation and Stamper Jewelry Manufacturing, a South Dakota corporation, Plaintiffs
LaBelle's, a corporation,
Gold Rush, Inc., et al.,
Herberger's Department Store, a corporation,
(Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, 05/01/80, US District Court, Andrew W. Bogue, United States District Judge).
Lawrence County, Dakota Territory Centennial 1861-1961.
"High court rules jewelry makers can sell wares as Black Hills Gold" Rapid City Journal, 07/01/83.
"Lawyers present arguments over Black Hills Gold" Rapid City Journal 01/19/83.
"Life-saving grapes inspired gold jewelry" by George Moses. Rapid City Journal, 08/19/90.
Brochures and company literature by:
F. L. Thorpe and Company
Landstrom's Original Black Hills Gold Creations
Stamper Genuine Black Hills Gold Jewelry