Jun 10, 2023
Pointed in the Right Direction
For the Wirtels, stonework runs in the family. Bill Wirtel’s grandfather was a stonecutter from Upper Bohemia, and the profession found its way back to Bill just two generations later when he opened
For the Wirtels, stonework runs in the family.
Bill Wirtel’s grandfather was a stonecutter from Upper Bohemia, and the profession found its way back to Bill just two generations later when he opened Santa Fe Stoneworks, an artful, handmade knife and cutlery shop. Now after more than two decades of working alongside him, his children Anna and Miles are carrying on the tradition to become equal owners as the operation celebrates 45 years of serving customers.
But long before Bill Wirtel established the business in 1978, the work was far from what he wanted or saw himself doing. He graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Missouri, initially working for IBM before leaving the Midwest to travel throughout the West for several years. When he landed in Santa Fe, however, he knew it was where he would stay.
“Of all the places, Santa Fe was the most unique place I’d seen, and I came here and I love it to death,” Wirtel tells SFR. “I’ve always felt like I’m home, and that’s a feeling you can’t explain.”
As he learned more about the city, he realized he had a different calling.
“I knew there were three things here: the state government, tourism and the arts, and so the arts are the only thing that really ever interested me,” Wirtel says.
He sold jewelry for a while before realizing he was competing against “the whole town,” so Wirtel decided to take the skills he had learned, such as the overlay and inlay application processes involved with most jewelry making, and apply them to gearshift knives and letter openers.
The business has lived in several locations since its launch. It began in the family’s home off Old Santa Fe Trail before moving to other spots such as off Highway 14, in Agua Fría, and on Airport Road before landing in 1991 where it sits today at 3790 Cerrillos Road. Wirtel says the family hopes to open a shop downtown in the future.
About 90% of Santa Fe Stonework’s sales are for shipping, the owners report. (Evan Chandler)
Yet breaking into the market and identifying their niche proved to be difficult, he says. It wasn’t until the family attended national craft shows to sell their work that customers helped paint a clearer picture of what he they were offering: men’s gifts.
Though products were initially “too pretty” for the knife market to be interested, Santa Fe Stoneworks later partnered with companies like Camillus Cutlery, a private label company that was a part of Imperial Schrade Corporation, the largest American-made knife company in the world at the time. Today, 90% of Santa Fe Stone’s sales are for shipping.
And somehow, doing the work came to his children’s lives in the same way—unexpectedly and with little experience. Anna says if someone had told her this would be her life, she would have said they were crazy.
“[Taking over the business] wasn’t something my brother and I aspired to do,” she says, noting the children were not allowed to work there when they were younger based on an agreement with one of Bill’s business partners.
Even later when that partner was no longer in the picture, Anna initially turned down the opportunity to work for her father. She tried jobs in water testing and considered others in places like Mexico, while her brother initially wanted to be a car mechanic. After finally agreeing to come and help out her father doing shipping work, she tells SFR she knew within three months it was what she was “supposed to do with her life.”
The children now help out where they can, with job descriptions exceeding their original assignments and Anna’s husband Larry Montoya also playing a role. Anna tells SFR she enjoys working alongside fellow family members and friends, who with the help of partner businesses over the years, keep things thriving.
“We have this really wonderful team of people that can really approach all sides of what we need to do with the business to grow and keep coming up with new stuff,” Anna says.
Interim Director of the Small Business Development Center Deborah Collins says multigenerational legacy businesses such as theirs are important in Santa Fe, especially because often small business owners only view their businesses as a job they leave behind when they retire.
“Many times they don’t see that what they’ve created has value and should continue,” Collins tells SFR. “I want to encourage people to think about their exit strategies and get help planning. Is it selling the company? Is there a family member that could take it over? We’ve got some longtime businesses here, and they need to keep going.”
In January, after over 20 years of working alongside their father, the children received shares as equal owners in the company from Bill.
“They’ve definitely earned it. They are running it,” Bill says. “I just turned 80, so I come in late and leave early, but I’m still involved.”
Throughout the years, Anna and Miles have added knife collections, such as button-lock styles. Prices for items from Santa Fe Stoneworks range from $50 to $2,500, but visitors can enter a drawing for a custom, button-lock knife with a turquoise inlay through September.