Even in the Old West There's One Mall of Fame

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

This town that often is thought of as quintessentially Old West has been billed as the "Dude Ranch Capital of the World."

But tourists who come here on vacation will find that Tucson, including the very luxurious and popular ranch-like resorts on the outskirts of town, is a thoroughly modern and fast-growing metropolis.

Because traveling from one part of town to another can take hours, Tucsonians head for the nearest mall to do their shopping, dining out and movie watching.

The city's several sizable malls, conveniently spread around town, have essentially the same lineup of shops.

There is, however, one superb and very different mall: St. Philips Plaza. This distinctive shopping and business center is on Campbell Avenue between River Road and the Rillito River, in the northern section of Tucson, near several top resort complexes and within view of the scenic Santa Catalina Mountains.

St. Philips Plaza, hacienda-like in appearance and layout, has a series of adobe buildings surrounding pretty patios that are landscaped with fountains, greenery and flowers.

The complex contains professional offices and attractive restaurants such as Los Maya and Cafe Terra Cotta, as well as a terrific selection of a dozen shops that show and sell distinct Southwestern-style merchandise.

West Fine Leather creates and sells its own line of fabulous leather clothing and accessories. Included are dresses and shirts, belts, bags, briefcases, wallets, agendas and notebooks made of the finest cowhide and embellished with sections of lizard or other exotic leathers, as well as silver and/or turquoise studs and buckles.

Red suede dresses fashioned from large squares of supple suede cost about $600, and beautiful red and gray Custer-style suede shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons are about $300. The belts ($55 and up) are hand-stitched and come in a wide variety of colors.

Styles range from narrow sashes of woven leather ($105 to $120) to broad bands of snakeskin that fasten by looping around themselves. There are luscious leather clutch bags ($70 and up) with fastenings made of snakeskin, silver, turquoise and wood.

Designer Ruby Firecat's extraordinary pouch bags ($200 and up) and briefcases ($500 and up) are made of lizard and suede that have been dyed vermilion and other stunning colors. Multi-sectioned jewel boxes are covered with snakeskin, calf or lizard, and studded with turquoise (from $300).

Sturdy hand-stitched leather carry-on suitcases cost $375. Sandals ($65 and up) are made to order (a rush order takes five days) and have turquoise-studded fasteners. West Fine Leather also makes boots ($420 and up), most popular of which are models with goatskin uppers, buffalo vamps and six-row stitching (about $475). Most spectacular of all are the agendas ($120 and up), handmade of ring lizard or buffalo hide and adorned with silver conchos and pieces of turquoise.

Limited Editions features an extra-special collection of wearable art, mostly made by local designers. The Whispers label makes hand-painted silk ensembles, with flowing trousers, jackets, blouses and skirts selling for about $275 and up.

The patterns of the paintings vary considerably, from abstract splashes of color to lovely florals. There are also selections of tie-dyed silk blouses and slacks for about $255 per ensemble. One-of-a-kind cape coats that are richly appliqued with patchworked velvet and satin sell for about $225 and up, and hand-painted quilted silk jackets cost about $100 and up.

In addition, there are beautiful hand-woven shawls with lovely, subtle desert colors (about $175 and up), and a rich array of moderately priced jewelry, including major-statement, multi-strand necklaces laden with chunks of turquoise, lapis, onyx, quartz and silver or cloisonne beads (about $400 and up). There are also remarkable dangling earrings with pieces of jade and coral surrounded by silver (about $60 and up).

H. K. Jensen is a more traditional high-fashion boutique with clothes by many of the internationally recognized designers carefully selected to reflect Tucson's easygoing life style. Ensembles (about $250 and up) have a formal, big-city dimension, but still can be worn with wind-blown hair.

Cele Peterson's provides up-market casual attire, with an emphasis on bold, boxy, comfortable clothes with an almost Scandinavian flavor. Bright colors are contrasted in ensembles that cost about $150 and up.

Maricopa Design Jewelers makes handcrafted 14- and 18-carat gold jewelry set with diamonds and colored gemstones. The pricey pieces are unusual in that they blend neoclassical and earthy design elements--sort of Cartier with a canyonland feel to it.

Owner/designer Rod Kuehnast, who won the DeBeers design contest in 1988, works with sculptural forms, using fluted and smooth surfaces on pieces that range from pure abstractions to representations of alligators and other creatures of the wild.

A fabulous diamond ring with a fluted setting costs $2,500, and a stunning sapphire of two carats surrounded by diamonds in a setting with an Italian motif sells for $4,000.

Christopher Rush, another jeweler who has worked with Cartier and Bulgari, sets crystals in sterling silver. His pieces have a neo-Roman look and sell for $300 to $700. The shop also carries some jewelry with Indian motifs.

Tom Bahti Indian Arts is a superb source for fine-quality Indian crafts, ranging from First Mesa artist Conrad Torivia's exquisite Kachina dolls (from $195) to lovely and relatively inexpensive silver jewelry. Earrings of lapis shaped to look like teardrops cost $27. Thick bracelets of silver set with turquoise and coral cost $200 and up.

There are dozens of intricately etched silver collar points ranging in price from $28 to $40. In addition, the shop sells drums and sweet-sounding flutes, and some lovely pottery.

Obsidian Gallery is a treasury of contemporary crafts made by local artisans. Among the many wearables are silk jackets that have been hand painted with stylized coyotes baying at the moon (from $500) and matching silk scarfs (from $50) as well as hand-painted T-shirts (from $40) with Tucson and desert motifs and hand-quilted jackets (from $400) in desert pastel colors.

The selection of handcrafted jewelry includes Polly Reidhead's charming mask pins that are cast in silver ($42). Coyote Carl greeting cards ($1 each) are fun for sending home.

Beth O'Donnell Gallery exhibits Southwestern art, including Angus MacPherson's brilliant paintings of fiery sunsets or stormy skies (from about $3,000 and up), Russell Hamilton's paintings of tree-lined canyons, Michael Ives "Cactus Mesa" ($2,000) and Jon Eric Schafer's series of large painted bowls entitled "Cloud Scapes" (from about $600 each).

Design West Interiors sells home accessories. It offers pillows covered with suede or fur ($80), napkin rings sculpted of red clay ($10 each), painted equipales and tables, statues of cartoon-like raccoons ($220), large Indian drums ($50), oversize wooden spoons ($25) and other unusual accents for home environments.

Pine Crossing offers attractive antique English pine furniture that has been stripped and waxed. Included are armoires ($1,610 and up), corner hutches ($710 and up), stools ($70), four-poster beds with canopies ($3,775) and other pieces.

Most date from the 1820s, but the pieces have been liberally reconstructed by combining elements from several items.

In addition, there is a fine selection of unusual interior decor accents, such as chintz-covered stuffed pigs ($44) and Depression-era quilts from the Midwest ($400 and up).

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