Concho Belts

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Navajo Concho belts are a beautiful form of Native American expression. The idea for them seems to have started as far back as the 18th century.

The Southern Plains Indians had an early form of the Concho belt. The Navajo got them from these other Indians and blended them with early Spanish/Mexican designs found on tack such as harness buckles and spurs.

The word concho came from the Spanish "concha", which means a seashell. The early belts used this design, but the term has come to include round, oval or rectangle disks. Besides being used for belts, they are used to decorate horse tack, clothing and jewelry such as pendants and bolo ties.

The Navajo Concho belts can be divided into 3 periods. In the first period we see a Navajo; named Arsida Chon (Ugly Smith) hammering Mexican silver pesos into round pieces. They had diamond shaped slots and a center bar where a leather belt was laced through. The edges were scalloped to form the seashell look, and there were round decorative holes punched inside the scalloped edge. Concho belts were made like this from the 1860s  to the 1880's.

In the 1880s Navajo silversmiths traded for improved tools, stamps, cold chisels and punches. They learned how to solder copper loops on the back of the conchos. This began the second period where leather was strung on the back of the concha, making the center of the concha open for decoration.

In the early 1900s  the Navajo began setting turquoise into their pieces. This was first done in the 1880s but because turquoise was still scarce it wasn't until the 1890s that it became common. During this third period the Colorado and Nevada turquoise mines began to send turquoise to New Mexico and Arizona. Around the late 1910s the Navajo also started putting silver butterflies between the conchos. They were followed in the 1920s by link concho belts (which have the conchos connected by rings).

Today conchos can be a continuous row of conchos or they can have spacers which are traditionally the butterflies. The conchos and butterflies are sometimes backed by leather which focuses the silver work and also protects the edges of the silver from wear.

Concho belts can be worn by males or females; they are used with jeans and dresses.Generally there are 10 to 14 conchos and a buckle for a belt. If butterflies are used, a common pattern might be 6 conchos, 7 butterflies and a buckle. Link conchos might have 12 to 18 conchos connected by rings.

Modern conchos can be all sterling silver. Many though have stones in the center or around the perimeter.

Generally there are two types of belts, leather or link. The leather belts are usually extra long and not  punched. This allows them to be custom fit to size. The conchos can be slid along the leather to position them perfectly for the waste size. The link concho belts have conchos connected by rings with a hook fastener on the end.

Concho belts can be fastened in one of 3 ways. Some have a normal buckle with a tongue. Others are made for large western style belt buckles with a prong that fits into a belt hole. Link Concho belts fasten with a hook that can be attached almost anywhere on the belt. This makes them one size fits all. For those with small waists, a longer part of the belt hangs down in the front after fastening.

The  "museum quality" Concho belts are usually only made with the finest silver and stones. They can be valued at $20,000 or more.

Authentic Native American traditional sterling silver  Concho belts are marketed for buyers who can appreciate higher quality. They are less complex than the museum quality pieces, but are also quite beautiful. These can be worn over a blouse or shirt, or with jeans. They sell in the $1000-$9000 range.

Nichel or German silver Concho belts actually have no silver content. These types of Concho belts are usually not handmade. They are usually machine struck so though the the design might have originally been a Native American design, they are not handmade Native American works. There are also plated concho belts that can be chrome or a thin layer of silver plating over steel. All of these are tourist of costume jewelry, and buyers need to be wary.

True Navajo made Concho belts are crafted with great care. They are a symbol of elegance.

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