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Old World Artistry on the Comstock

December 2, 2022
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virginia city hat maker, vc hat maker, custom hats nevada, sydney martinez blog

“A Hat is a reflection of the person—a reflection of what they will do in their life, their personality. And it will tell you a lot about the person who wears it.”

Pascal Baboulin

In a modern world obsessed with immediacy and instant gratification, it isn’t all too often you get the chance to lean all the way into the type of craftsmanship that’s preceded us all by centuries,  back when workmanship and the name associated to it truly meant something. But in a town thrust into the world by unusual lavishness borne from exorbitant wealth connected to the world’s largest silver strike, old world artistry is the name of the game. And there’s no better place to really feel it than alongside Pascal, at his world-renowned hat making shop in the heart of the Golden West.

In a town whose successes are rooted to cultural diversities from the most skilled tradesmen of all kinds from all across the world, the Virginia City Hat Maker’s story is no different, a whole 163 years since that mysterious blue clay was first unearthed. Pascal Baboulin grew up on the border of France and Switzerland in Savoie, France, and even though he first studied the artistry of hatmaking from his grandfather (another pro hatmaker) when he was just 13, he later came to the United States to explore the American West and complete an apprenticeship in Arizona. So how in the hell did he end up in Virginia City, NV with a storefront on Historic C Street? A girl. From the French Alps to the Comstock, Pascal and his wife settled into her hometown—a national historic district so magnificent it’s Nevada’s largest and blankets the whole damn town—and he opened the one and only Pioneer Emporium in a historic edifice that first operated as a hardware house in 1862. Pascal’s been making hats here since 2004—all 20+ individual styles—where he’ll look at a person and tailor it to them, custom. And for my 36th birthday, I was lucky enough to be one of them. 

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Virginia City Skyline // Loren Kerns
historic c street, virginia city nv, virginia city skyline
Historic C Street // Alvito

Let me just say it: I am the worst person to try and plan a surprise for. So dramatically that, on special occasions like when my husband proposed and any other events of the sort, my husband either has to straight up lie to me, take elaborate measures to try to throw me off, or piss me off altogether enough to merit a true distraction. And for a hat of this caliber—this was, regrettably, a masterfully planned surprise. My husband loaded up a bunch of rockhounding tools, a yoga mat (??), flashlights, and whatever other random stuff he could find in the garage, and we pointed the tires towards the site of the world’s largest silver discovery. Thirty minutes later he handed me a card, with the inscription, “you’re going to need new feathers”, with The Hatmaker’s address and an appointment five minutes from now. 

nevada hot springs, sydney martinez
My beloved flat hat that’s been with me to Nevada’s deepest, darkest corners

If you’ve followed my Nevada rambles, you’ll know that my flat hat has become part of my personality. Then again, in a state with more sunny days than just about any place else, you’d be crazy to head out into the Sagebrush Kingdom without some kind of wide-brimmed coverage. I have a UV-providing felt hat that I found somewhere on the internet years ago, adorned with a Northern Flicker feather I found up in Soldier Meadows, a silver road runner pin, and one of my Song Dog Silver hat pins, and was fully aware of Pascal and his work. I’d dreamed of having a custom made hat, especially for how often I wear mine, and today was the day. 

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Pascal Baboulin beginning my custom hat making process

We arrived at the Pioneer Emporium, and this time, got to breeze right past the rest of the folks hoping to get an on-the-fly, one-of-a-kind hat from Pascal. My husband had arranged an appointment, and one minute later I was sitting on his bench, having him help me pick the style and color hat I wanted. Knowing how much I rely upon that wide-brimmed flat hat I knew I wanted a similar style. As for color? Definitely something different. I eyed down a sage green hat in the back, (naturally, the most expensive in the place—oops), and minutes later, it was on his workbench and about to be perfectly customized to my head.

Custom Made for Sydney Martinez 2022
Shaping the brim

You see, all hats begin as sort of a blank, so to speak. A general shape that, with equal parts artistry and precision, can be molded perfectly to the recipient. All of them are made with different materials, some “purer” than others. I of course had a general idea about this, but got to see it all unfold before me, first hand. Posted up on the bench right across from Pascal, he began steaming the hat, getting it ready to be molded. Next came measuring my head, which quickly translated into a leather hat band that would line the interior of the hat. From there, he molded the felt to form it, but not without embossing the liner with his name and mine, in all gold letters: Custom Made for Sydney Martinez, 2022. Once the hat band was hand sewn (!!) inside the felt, Pascal continued to steam the hat and mold it into shape, free forming the top of the hat’s shape with his hands. It’s not very often where you get to be in the presence of such talent, let alone see it unfolding in front of you like a performance. In between shaping my hat with calculated confidence, he was answering my questions and holding a conversation, all while entertaining waves of Virginia City visitors so enamored with his work that they too all immediately wanted one. It was nothing short of true showmanship.

Tightening the Fibers
Making the hat band

I mentioned this to Pascal, and he compared it to playing a musical instrument—it’s the sort of thing that, with practice, you just get better and better at it. Pascal had done this thousands (who am I kidding, probably millions of times), and didn’t measure a thing—he just knew. In between fireballs, a process that tightens the fibers, Pascal told me that the most difficult part of the hat making process is nailing the axis of balance. Knowing Virginia City has always beckoned visitors (and residents) from all corners of the world, I asked how far people have traveled to have a hat made by Pascal. Let me just say this: the man has no ego whatsoever. With a coy smile, he said that he had a hat on a head in the Arctic Circle, Japan, Russia… and well, you get the picture. 

Pascal’s final inspections

An hour and a half later, he had another hat on a head—this time in the Great Basin State. He finished the process up by hand sewing a leather hat band and rope onto the hat, bedazzling it with a piece of turquoise, sewing a silk liner inside—and complete with his name, Baboulin. The final step, which seemed like it was on the fly and right up my alley, was forming the most custom cigar curl on the brim, a few inches at a time. Freshly steamed, off the mold, and on to my head, it was the moment of truth. Pascal checked the axis of balance, and that the hat fit my head in all the right places. And my god, what a feeling—to have a hat perfectly formed to my head, and made with unbeatable artistry and talent right in the heart of one of Nevada’s most bustling tourism districts. People are searching for authenticity—you can feel it, and find it among Pascal’s company in Virginia City. 

Very Superstitious

With Rosie down at the Silver Queen Virginia City, Lena gracing the spiral staircase over at the Washoe Club Haunted Saloon, and William down at the Gold Hill Hotel, you can bet there’s an infamous ghost to go along with every edifice in a national historic district so huge it blankets the entire town. As for superstitions? Well, it wouldn’t be a 19th century silver boomtown without ‘em. Pascal’s got a few superstitions of his own, and naturally, are all about hats.

never put a peacock feather in your hat.

This one goes way back, and in some places, many people believe that it’s bad luck to even bring any sort of peacock feather into your home at all. You see, the eye-shaped markings on peacock feathers reminded Mediterranean people of the demon Lilith, who they blamed for a child’s unexplained death. By bringing a peacock feather into your house, or worse, wearing one on your hat ushers Lilith into your home and lives to cause all sorts of chaos.

Don’t put your hat on the bed.

“You can wear your hat in the bed…” Pascal remarked, then joked, “now I’ve let my French show a little too much.”

This one is more common knowledge, at least in northern Nevada, or buckaroo country. There are a few theories about this, including the oldest, where it was believed that evil spirits lurked in your hair, and that the static electricity from taking your hat off in a warm, dry bedroom would discharge them. And if you lay your hat where you’re going to lay your head, then it welcomes evil spirits into the world as you sleep. Other superstitions elude to serious injury or death—even Corb Lund sings about it in his song, “Always Keep an Edge on Your Knife” with the lyrics:

Never put your hat on the bed, son, never put your hat on the bed
Cuz if your hat’s on the bed you might wake up dead
So don’t ya never put ya hat on the bed
And if you do be sure it’s upside down, son, if you do be sure it’s upside down
Cuz if there’s any doubt, it keeps the luck from runnin’ out
So if you do be sure it’s upside down

Many believe that a hat on the bed means serious injury is looming, can signal impending danger to a loved one, or even death, seeing as a person’s hat was placed over the closed portion of the casket at funerals. And the third theory about why leaving your hat on the bed is bad luck? Lice. And that one of course, is far less mysterious than the others, yet mighty on-character for the Old West.

One Happy Custom Hat Recipient

Pascal Baboulin
Virginia City Hat Maker
144 S. C Street
Virginia City, NV 89440
(775) 847-9214

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