FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The sometimes plain, sometimes heavily decorated neckties are a symbol of the West, worn with everything from blue jeans to tuxedos.

Texas links the bolo to the romanticism of the pioneer era and suggests that anyone who wears one refuses to be bound by convention. New Mexico says they reflect the state's tri-cultural heritage — a mix of Hispanic, American Indian and Anglo influences.

In Arizona, where the bolo tie was declared the official state neckwear in 1971, an exhibit honoring the ubiquitous western neck adornment opened Saturday at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

The braided leather cord with an ornament on a sliding clasp has decorated the necks of cowboys, politicians and runway models, reflecting the bolo tie's versatility.

"I just like it because it's a distinctive look," said Norman Sandfield, a Chicago resident who donated his collection of bolo ties to Phoenix's venerable Native arts and culture museum. "It makes me look confident. It's a conversation starter."

The exhibit, "Native American Bolo Ties: Vintage and Contemporary," showcases Native designers who have brought unique designs with traditional inspirations to the bolo. Small ornaments made with silver and a single turquoise stone have evolved into elaborate figurative pieces with numerous stones or jewels.

The bolo tie emerged as a form of men's neckwear in the 1940s but it's difficult to pinpoint its exact origin, said exhibit curator Diana Pardue, who co-wrote a book on bolos with Sandfield that accompanies the exhibit. While the authors found pictures with bolos in magazines and other publications from the 1950s and 60s, Pardue said there was little written about them.

One common story is that Wickenburg, Ariz., silversmith Victor Cedarstaff hung his silver-trimmed hatband around his neck on a windy day in the 1940s while on horseback to keep it from flying away. Someone comment just how nice his "tie" looked. Cedarstaff later patented it. Others say the bolo tie as fashioned by American Indian artists appeared much earlier.

Western television personalities including the Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers helped popularize the bolo.

The bolo tie long has been a staple of western wear in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and surrounding states, and generally is an acceptable replacement for a cloth or bow tie. Popular with men and women, bolos have carried over to more trendy fashion.

New Mexico lawmakers declared the bolo the official state tie in 2007 — following up on a non-binding memorial nearly 20 years earlier. What legislators wore around their necks prompted spirited debates about which chamber had the more professionally-attired members — the bolo-sporting senators or the representatives whose rules didn't allow bolos on the floor until 2009.

Said Sandfield, "The simple rule is — if there are any rules — is that the higher you wear it to the collar, the dresser it is. The lower you wear it, the more casual it is."

Don Prusakowski promotes the wearing of the ties through the Bola Tie Society of Arizona. Yes, bola. Prusakowski quickly explains that b-o-l-a is the tie and b-o-l-o is a knife, showing that not everyone even agrees on the spelling. They've also been called string, Texas, lariat and goucho ties, and piggin necklets.

"It's consistent," said Prusakowski, 77, of the tie's popularity. "What you do get is a lot of people who come from the East and Mideast, and they want to be cowboys. They start wearing bola ties. They find it's much easier and much more comfortable."

Texas also designated the bolo as state tie in 2007.

The Heard has 350 bolo ties on display, with the exhibit running through September 2012.

If You Go...

NATIVE AMERICAN BOLO TIES: VINTAGE AND CONTEMPORARY: Through Sept. 3 at the Heard Museum; 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, http://www.heard.org or 602-252-8848. Open Monday through Friday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Christmas. Adults, $15; seniors 65 and over, $13.50; students with ID and children 6-12, $7.50; children 5 and under, American Indians and members, free.