New Yorker makes elaborate belt buckles for famous people, political causes

August 17, 2015 

A cutout of President Obama's signature, which Earl Harley is making into a buckle for him as a gift.

NEW YORK — Some people retire and go fishing.

Some people retire and play golf.

Earl Harley retired and started making buckles.

"I’m Harley the buckle man!" he said as I entered his shop at the back of the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, an open-air emporium where vendors sell colorful fabrics, woven bags, beaded jewelry, drums and masks.

Harley’s shop walls are covered with letters of thanks from people who have received his buckles, which are not your standard hold-the-leather-together metal devices he disdains. These are specially designed for the rich, the famous, the political leaders and the political causes, and each one is handmade by Harley in his Harlem shop.

"You need a real buckle," he said ruefully, eyeing the simple clasp on my belt. In other words, a Harley-made buckle.

Some of his recent creations sit beneath glass in the store. One is engraved with "Eric Garner — I Can’t Breathe," commemorating Garner and his last words, which were gasped during an altercation with New York police last summer and which ignited nationwide protests. Another bears the name of South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a victim of the mass shooting in a Charleston church by a white racist. "Black Lives Matter" is implanted in nickel silver on the black acrylic background of another buckle.

Those are not for sale, said Harley, for whom buckle-making, along with crafting cuff links and the occasional dog tag — there is one for Bo, the Obama family dog — is more a hobby than a business.

"These are one of a kind, for the family members if they want them," Harley said.

Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Harley wears his on his buckles.

There is one he plans to send to President Obama, with the words "World’s Greatest President" on it.

He also has one for the person he is certain will be the next president.

"First female president: Hillary Clinton. 2016," it reads, in silver letters on a red background.

Never mind that the Democratic candidate’s trademark pantsuits don’t lend themselves to belts with wide, ornate buckles. "She’s gonna win," Harley said. "Sooner or later, I’m going to send this buckle to her at the White House."

As he spoke, the whiff of incense and the sound of foreign dialects, from vendors and tourists, filled the narrow alleys of the market. A thunderstorm had left the wet pavement steaming in the summer heat, and sellers sat outside their small shops, fanning themselves among tables laden with earrings, baskets full of bracelets, and exotic-looking textiles.

Harley’s store and workshop occupy a trailer-like structure that measures about 20 feet long and 8 feet wide.

Inside, belts with Harley-made buckles, many adorned with rhinestones, hang from the ceiling. Buckles pack the glass display case that runs nearly the length of the store, which is separated from the workshop by a partial wall. The store’s pink walls display framed thank-you notes.

There are four from the Obamas, signed by Barack and Michelle. A fifth one from the first couple was to wish Harley a happy birthday last June 23.

There is a hand-scrawled thank-you note from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. There are letters from rapper Ja Rule, John Oates of the pop duo Hall & Oates, former Gov. David Paterson, Bill Clinton and Rep. Charles B. Rangel, among others.

Harley does not talk much about himself, but he offered some background.

He grew up in Savannah, Ga., and retired as a postal worker in Queens. He is 80 but tries to hide it, even whiting out his age on the Obamas’ happy birthday letter. With his fit frame and energetic demeanor, he looks far younger than he is. He used to be an avid runner and finished eight marathons in the 1980s.

Harley became interested in buckles during forays into Manhattan’s midtown diamond district, where he would see the jewelry makers practicing their trade in the store windows.

"I thought, darn, let me buy some tools and start doing something," Harley said. When he retired, he bought a jeweler’s saw, a drill, some scrap metal and acrylic paint, and he started making buckles.

At first, Harley made buckles mainly for friends and sold some, for a few dollars to more than $50 for the most elaborate ones, which are larger than an adult’s hand, decorated with rhinestones and carved into hearts, butterflies or other shapes.

Harley said his first celebrity buckle was for Ja Rule several years ago. "His stylist came to me and said he needed a buckle," said Harley, who crafted one for the rapper to wear in a photo shoot. Harley has a picture of a shirtless Ja Rule, wearing jeans held up with a belt and the buckle emblazoned with his name gleaming below the waistband of his underwear.

He rarely deals with celebrities anymore. Instead, Harley said, he prefers to practice his hobby and send out his gifts, which are not universally embraced.

After Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected, Harley made four buckles: one for the mayor, one for his wife, Chirlane McCray, and one each for their children, Dante and Chiara. The package was returned unopened.

Some of his most famous recipients don’t return their buckles, but they don’t acknowledge them either, as far as Harley can tell. Like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and comedian Kevin Hart. "Never heard from him, never heard from him, never heard from him," Harley said, ticking off the names. "I think these things must all go into a warehouse somewhere."

There is nobody Harley would refuse to make a buckle for, though he laughed out loud when asked what he would do if Donald Trump became president.

"Yeah, I’d make him a buckle, sure," Harley said. "My thing is making buckles."



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