National Geographic March 15, 2018 Biggest Fake Native American Art Conspiracy Revealed

Biggest Fake Native American Art Conspiracy Revealed

Jewelry dealer Nael Ali will be the first defendant sentenced in the most extensive federal investigation into Indian arts and crafts fraud.

At a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing held at Santa Fe Indian School on July 7, 2017, William Woody, then Chief of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, called the $250,000 maximum penalty a “pittance” for those who pass off mass-produced imports as Indian made.


High on the Colorado Plateau in northwestern New Mexico, a dusty main road runs through the Pueblo of Zuni. Pull over to the side, and someone in threadbare clothing will soon approach your window holding out a mysterious little box. In Los Angeles, where I live, such an offering could only mean trouble, and you’d be wise to roll up the window and make a quick getaway. But here in the homeland of the Zuni people, it’s safe to take a look. The box is lined with soft cloth, and in it you’ll find an exquisite creation this person made with his own hands—a travertine animal carving, silver earrings inlaid with the Zuni sun face motif, a corn maiden pendant of carved shell.

The Zuni people rely heavily on hard-won earnings from handmade jewelry and crafts. The tourism department of Zuni Pueblo estimates that 80 percent of working adults there make arts and crafts for sale. Yet it’s getting harder and harder for them to make a living.


Navajo jeweler Liz Wallace works on a piece in her studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


For as long as the Zunis and other indigenous artisans have sold their crafts, they’ve been undercut by fakes—nonnatives posing as Indians to sell more of their work, factory made goods sold as handmade. But today’s fakes include a virtual torrent of knockoffs cheaply manufactured overseas and masquerading as genuine Native made—baskets made in Pakistan sold as Navajo, beadwork made in China sold as Plains Indian, Hopi katsina dolls cranked out in the Philippines—none more profitable than counterfeit Indian jewelry.

The insult isn’t just financial. “Our arts and crafts give us a really concrete way to stay connected to our culture and our history,” says Navajo jeweler Liz Wallace. “All this fake stuff feels like a very deep personal attack.”

But even though the rampant sale of counterfeits in the Southwest has been widely acknowledged for decades—and has ties to organized crime, according to affidavits by federal investigators—only recently has the U.S. government taken any serious action to shut down the major operators. Whether the crackdown has teeth will be tested in New Mexico in April, when Albuquerque jewelry dealer Nael Ali will be sentenced for fraudulently selling imported jewelry as Native American made.

 Ali, the owner of several retail stores in Albuquerque’s Old Town district, pleaded guilty on October 18, 2017, to misrepresenting as Native-made jewelry sourced from two family-run networks he said were supplying him with counterfeit jewelry made in the Philippines. These two networks make for the largest Native American art fraud conspiracy ever brought to light.

Ali’s sentencing is the first in the ongoing federal investigation called Operation Al Zuni, which began in March 2012, and is the most extensive ever conducted into Native American art fraud.

The investigation was named Operation Al Zuni after Al Zuni Global Jewelry, a well-known business in Gallup, New Mexico, owned by Nashat Khalaf, a Palestinian immigrant and prominent Indian arts dealer. Al Zuni, which claims to be the “largest wholesaler of Indian jewelry serving the Southwest since 1977,” has its storefront in Gallup but also sells at gem and jewelry trade shows where retailers from all over the country buy inventory.

Misrepresenting arts and crafts, including jewelry, for sale as Native made when they’re not is a federal crime under a law passed in 1935 called the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. The act provides for penalties of up to $250,000 and five years in jail for first time offenders, but until now it has rarely been enforced. Federal law also requires that “Indian-style” products imported into the United States be permanently marked with the country of origin. That law too has been widely flouted.


Billboards along Highway 40 in Arizona and New Mexico tout indigenous-made arts and crafts, from pottery and rugs to moccasins and jewelry.


It has been estimated that the Native American arts and crafts industry brings in more than a billion in gross sales annually nationwide. And although many would say that not enough profits have ever reached the artists, the sale of handmade jewelry, baskets, pottery, carved figurines, beaded leather, and other crafts provide livelihoods for thousands of indigenous people.

According to federal investigators, the two families running counterfeiting networks are both Palestinian, known to law enforcement as the Sterling Coalition and the Aysheh brothers. The Sterling Coalition, the larger of the two, operates an importing company in Albuquerque called Sterling Islands, which is owned by Nashat Khalaf’s brother, Jawad Khalaf, and niece, Sheda Khalaf.

In affidavits filed in support of 18 search warrants executed in October of 2015, investigators name these and other members of the Khalaf family, and associates, as participants in a scheme to import and fraudulently sell counterfeit Native American jewelry manufactured in a factory in the Philippines called “Fashion Accessories 4 U.” Jawad Khalaf and his son, Nader, have owned the factory since at least 2006. None of the Khalafs has been charged yet.

Albuquerque lawyer John Boyd, who represents Nashat Khalaf and Al Zuni Global Jewelry, calls the allegations against his client “wrong.” The business and its owner, he said in an email, “have supported Native American artisans for decades, maintain good relationships with them and provide the most important outlet in the area for Native Americans to sell their work. Al Zuni and Khalaf deny that they have ever attempted to pass off or have passed off any jewelry as Native American, Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, or any other tribe, when it is not.”

Mark Baker, another Albuquerque lawyer, who represents Jawad Khalaf and Sterling Islands, emailed that his clients “certainly deny that they violated the law or otherwise engaged in any deceitful conduct. This is a family of people known in the community as honest and responsible.”

 Law enforcement estimates that Sterling Islands has imported into the U.S. contraband jewelry worth $11,800,000 in wholesale value between October 2010 and October 2015. According to court records, retail buyers and wholesalers would place orders for replicas of particular pieces of genuine jewelry and pick them up at Sterling Islands.

The four Aysheh brothers running the other alleged conspiracy—Imad, Nedal, Iyad, and Raed—were charged in February 2017. Their trial is scheduled for October of this year. None has yet entered a plea.


Zuni jeweler Roxanne Seoutewa uses a flint spark lighter to fire up her torch in preparation for soldering hand-formed bezels to a silver sheet. Later she’ll fit in the tiny stones she’s cut and sanded.


In October 2015, when Operation Al Zuni went public, 11 jewelry and Indian arts stores were raided in New Mexico and California, including two of Nael Ali’s Albuquerque stores, Gallup 8 and Galleria Azul. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board estimated in 2016 that the retail value of the 350,000 pieces of jewelry seized during the raid exceeded $35 million.

Operation Al Zuni was conducted by the Office of Law Enforcement for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and funded through an agreement with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior tasked with developing and promoting arts and crafts as a source of income for American Indians and Alaska Natives, as well as with enforcing the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.


In the Pueblo of Zuni, jeweler Roxanne Seoutewa sits in a folding chair at a cramped desk in a well-worn trailer, soldering tiny hand-made bezels to a piece of silver sheet. Into the bezels she’ll fit the seed-like stones she’s cut, sanded, and polished to form the close, stitch-like pattern known as needlepoint and recognized by collectors the world over as one of the classic Zuni styles of handmade jewelry.

This miniature silver canteen, photographed by investigators at Al Zuni Global Jewelry, was sold to an undercover agent as Navajo made on November 24, 2014. Two years before, 20 identical canteens were found in a shipment from Fashion Accessories 4 U in the Philippines.


Compared to artisans trying to sell their work on the street, Seoutewa is doing well. But she has to go farther and farther from home to get a decent price for her work. She doesn’t sell to the local shops in Zuni anymore, or even to the wholesalers 40 miles away in Gallup. The problem, she says, is all the cheaply made foreign imports illegally sold as Zuni handmade.

It was the arrival of the railroads in the Southwest at the turn of the 20th century that set off a roaring business in indigenous art and crafts, and the industry has been a defining presence in the Southwest ever since.

And it was a boom in the tourist industry along Route 66 in the 1960s and 70s that attracted fortune-seekers from the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank. In 1972 Nashat Khalaf and three of his brothers were among the first to arrive in Gallup, the wholesale center for the arts and crafts produced on nearby Indian reservations. They opened a business selling Zuni jewelry, calling it Al-Zuni Traders. As Khalaf told Al Jazeera years later, he and his brothers had such instant success in the jewelry business that they “called everybody” back home. “It was a bonanza,” he said. “It was a gold rush, and they all came here.” By 2002 several hundred Palestinians had settled in Gallup, most reportedly in the Indian jewelry business.

Today road trippers driving Interstate 40 through Arizona and New Mexico are bombarded with billboards hawking crafts “MADE BY INDIANS.” Much of what’s for sale hasn’t been made by Indians at all. Even Santa Fe, regarded as the heart of the high-end Indian art market with its world-renowned plaza shopping district, is rife with forgeries—so much so that the city recently announced an ordinance to try to rein in the fraud.

Higher-end jewelry knockoffs are copied from one-of-a-kind pieces by master Indian artisans and stamped with initials and symbols to mimic an artist’s hallmark. In stores the fakes are often mixed in with genuine pieces but sold at a discount, forcing jewelers who painstakingly craft each piece by hand to compete with counterfeits produced in sweatshops.

Navajo silversmith Aaron Anderson, of Gallup, New Mexico, holds out a tufa stone negative he’s carved, which serves as both the mold for a belt buckle and a guarantee of authenticity for the buyer.


The Indian Arts and Crafts Board collects complaints about potential violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, but without a law enforcement bureau of its own, the board must rely on other agencies to investigate complaints. In 1990 a major overhaul of the act increased penalties for violations and gave the FBI primary responsibility for enforcing the law. But the FBI had other priorities, and the bureau generally declined referrals of potential violations from the board, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

By late 2011 when the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to look into fraudulently sold Indian arts and crafts, no jewelry dealers, or large-scale dealers in Indian arts and crafts of any kind, had been charged under the act. On several occasions during the 1990s and 2000s, New Mexico attorneys general sued jewelry stores in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, including several dealers identified by Operation Al Zuni as selling the Sterling Coalition’s Philippine counterfeits, but their suppliers were never identified. And even though the rampant sale of counterfeits in Arizona and New Mexico has been widely acknowledged for decades, no major counterfeiters had ever been charged.

Yet federal law enforcement had been alerted to at least one potential supplier as early as 1994, when the Arizona law firm Kirkpatrick & Kramer wrote to a Department of the Interior investigator on behalf of Hopi jeweler Jason Takala warning that “an outfit in eastern Gallup, New Mexico named ‘Al Zuni’ is mass-producing copies of original Native American jewelry.”

It wasn’t until nearly two decades later, after the Fish and Wildlife Service had taken over enforcement of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, that a piece of counterfeit Indian jewelry in a retail store was traced back to the Khalafs.


On November 26, 2012, a Monday, Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Russell Stanford walked into Gallery 8, an upscale jewelry shop in Albuquerque owned by Nael Ali. Posing as a jewelry dealer, Stanford bought two rings stamped with the initials CK, which the clerk told him stood for the Navajo artist Calvin Kee, according to court records. (There is no known Navajo jeweler named Calvin Kee.)

Ultraviolet light exposes otherwise invisible markings on a ring sold as Navajo made by Gallery 8, in Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico. Special Agent Russell Stanford marked the ring when he intercepted a UPS shipment full of jewelry imported from Fashion Accessories 4 U in the Philippines.


Later Stanford looked at the ring under an ultraviolet light and confirmed that it had come from the Khalafs’ factory in the Philippines: There were the dabs of otherwise invisible ink he’d applied to the ring two and a half months before when he intercepted a shipment of jewelry coming in from Fashion Accessories 4 U and bound for Sterling Islands.

In just months Stanford, working as the sole investigator on Operation Al Zuni (a second agent wasn’t added until June 2014) had done what no federal investigator had yet been able to do: substantiate a source for the high-end counterfeits that had been turning up in retail stores for decades.

Less than 30 days later, Gallery 8 was featured in a Christmas shopping guide in the Albuquerque Journal. Nael Ali claimed that he purchased all his jewelry, except for the Polish amber jewelry, directly from Native artists. “There’s no middleman for me,” he said.

Ali, along with Mohammad Manasra, a traveling jewelry seller (who Ali admitted in his plea agreement was indeed his middleman) were arrested in October 2015 in Operation Al Zuni’s initial take-down and became the first jewelry dealers ever to be charged with violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. (The charge against Manasra has been reduced to a misdemeanor, and he isn’t facing incarceration.)

In Nael Ali’s plea agreement, filed October 18, 2017, he admitted that the Philippine-based factories run by the Khalafs and the Aysheh brothers were the sources of counterfeits (some supplied through Mohammad Manasra) that he was fraudulently selling as Native made at Gallery 8 and at Galleria Azul, another store in Albuquerque. Ali confessed to mixing the knockoff jewelry with genuine Indian-made jewelry and ensuring “that none of the Philippine-made jewelry was marked with its country of origin.”


The ongoing prosecutions against the alleged fraudsters in New Mexico are sending shockwaves through the Indian arts and crafts industry. Nidal Abdeljawad of All Tribes Trading Post, an Indian arts store in the Pueblo of Zuni, claims that Nashat Khalaf’s Al Zuni Global Jewelry supplies 90 percent of the retail stores in the U.S. that deal in Native art. “If this guy has to close his shop, it will be a disaster for the Native Americans,” Abdeljawad says.


On the remote Zuni reservation in northwestern New Mexico, an estimated 80 percent of working adults make jewelry, pottery, stone animal carvings, or other arts and crafts for sale to tourists and dealers.


Other Southwest dealers fear that prosecutions against business owners accused of peddling fakes make for bad publicity and that customers and collectors, concerned about getting ripped off, will avoid shopping for Indian arts and crafts altogether.

Justin Winfield, of Winfield Trading Company, a large buyer of Indian jewelry and crafts located on the highway between Gallup and Zuni, disagrees. Fanning out the thick stack of newspaper articles he’d collected since October 2015, he told me last July that he thought the ongoing prosecutions were already having a “positive impact”—that buyers for retail stores were taking greater care to ensure authenticity.

A few spooked customers in the short-term is a price Winfield is willing to pay if it means curbing the influx of fakes. “It hurts to take the thorn out,” he said. “But after it’s out, you can heal up.”

William Woody, who championed his agency’s investigations into Indian arts and crafts fraud when he was chief of law enforcement at the Fish and Wildlife Service, thinks Operation Al Zuni has “just scratched the surface.” At a Senate field hearing last July—Woody’s final day on the job—he said, “We have not begun to take a comprehensive look into the markets for other Native American items in the Southwest, including pottery, paintings, blankets, etc., where there is likely similar fraudulent activity.”

“In order for things to change,” wrote the editors of the Gallup Independent in October 2017, “the federal government, as well as attorneys general in states like New Mexico and Arizona, must get a lot tougher on these frauds.”

The sentencings of Nael Ali and Mohammad Manasra, who have confessed to knowingly dealing in fakes from both alleged networks, will test how tough New Mexico judges are willing to be. Manasra isn’t facing prison time. But Ali, who pleaded guilty to a felony, faces up to 18 months in prison and could be the first person ever to go to jail for violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

Prosecutors have requested that the sentencing in Albuquerque of Ali and his co-defendant, Mohammad Manasra, be on the same day in April so that any Native American artisans who wish to be heard by the court won’t have to travel twice. “Now’s the time for these artists to come forward,” says Special Agent in Charge Nicholas Chavez, who supervised the Fish and Wildlife Service’s investigation.

Mojave Turquoise, Mojave Stone…..what is it?

What is Mojave Turquoise or Mojave Stone? (Also spelled Mohave) I could not find a single mention of it in any of my turquoise reference books. On the internet there are some references to it spelled mojave and mohave but I never found any detailed information. When attending a gem show not too long ago, I saw a stack of old magazines with a “FREE” sign by them, so I picked up a few and found this article inside one of them.

From the December 1979 issue of Lapidary Journal – this article made me think it was a mined stone, but…………..

Lapidary Journal December 1979





Mojave turquoise was crafted through a process that uses a hydraulic press to organize numerous Kingman turquoise pieces into one conglomerate by introducing a bronze metal matrix throughout the base network of turquoise. Once the turquoise is pressed or assembled, it is stabilized to harden the stone. It ranks 5 to 6 on the Mohs hardness scale.

This was said to be the only product in today’s market that features real Arizona turquoise and real metal matrix. This unique process was created by the Arizona Kingman Mine in Mojave County, Arizona

The trademark was activated in 1975 and expired in 1997.

It doesn’t appear that Mojave Blue Turquoise (as described in the article and these photos) is still being produced. If you have any other reference materials, please let me know and I will add them to this article.

I should mention that I looked through all 12 issues of the 1980 Lapidary Journals and did not find the color photos that were promised in the article at the beginning of this post. I wonder if the author found out that this was a conglomerate and not an actual gemstone that was mined and just decided to not continue the discussion?

It does appear that “Mohave” Green and “Mohave Purple” are being produced today by Colbaugh. They are processed products, often referred to as block stone – see the description under the photo.


From the Colbaugh website “Mohave Green Turquoise – Mix variety of color tone and natural matrix as shown. Blue Kingman turquoise stabilized, dyed green and pressed.”


Purple Mohave is also dyed, stabilized and pressed.


Purple Mohave Stone pendant by Lorenzo James


Foxtail, Chain and more………..


Stamped, graduated sterling silver bead necklace by Larry Pinto

We often get questions from customers about how sterling silver Navajo beads are strung. The same information applies to Squash Blossom Necklaces.

Some very old necklaces might be strung on string or waxed cord. Because of the movement of the beads on the string, the string can become worn, thin and break. Often, such a necklace would have to be restrung.

Most silver beads are strung on chain or foxtail and sometimes snake chain. It is a matter of personal preference of the artist.

Chain has a very open weave (light density), making it very easy to add a jump ring or fastener on the end. It is often used to string Navajo Pearls.


Foxtail, sometimes called wheat chain, has a medium density yet loose weave. This makes it possible to organize the ends and attach a ring or finisher. And it also results in a stronger, smoother track for the beads to slide on.


For instructions on how to string with foxtail and finish the ends see the photo below and also see the tips on RioGrande

Snake chain which has a very tight weave is sometimes used for stringing sterling silver beads but because of the added step of clamping to finish the ends, foxtail is usually preferred over snake.

Snake chain

Stamped, graduated sterling silver beads by Jeffrey Nelson.



What is a “Married” piece of Native American jewelry?

The term “married” is sometimes used in the Native American jewelry trade to refer to a piece that is comprised of work from two or more eras and/or by two or more artists.

It is generally a complimentary term, that is, the piece is still authentic Native American made but it has had modifications.

If the piece loses its authenticity or artistic appeal, instead of calling it a marriage, it might be called a “bastard” or just a plain old “mess”.

Here are some examples of pieces that have had modifications.

This concho belt had a broken belt and lost its buckle somewhere along the way. Each of the conchos is hallmarked BL, artist unknown. I added a similar New Old Stock (NOS) buckle to the belt. The buckle is hallmarked CARSON B STERLING, for Navajo Carson Blackgoat. I added a new leather belt. So this concho belt is now a married piece in that it has vintage conchos made by one silversmith, a buckle by another and a new belt.

“Married” concho belt with vintage conchos by BL, buckle by Carson Blackgoat and new leather.

Adding a complimentary buckle to a buckle-less belt makes a useful marriage

Similarly this repousse concho belt lost its buckle. Because the remaining conchos were with and without stones, I was able to find a vintage buckle by Floyd Arviso that complemented the plain conchos.

Conchos on the belt that needed a buckle

Repousee buckle by Floyd Arviso


“Married” repousse concho belt

This next example is not so clear cut. The vintage inlay shell pendant probably lost its necklace which is not hard to imagine since many of the stone necklaces commonly used with such a pendant would be strung on string which could have degraded over time and broken.

So it appears that someone tried to make the pendant useful by drilling several holes and suspending the pendant by wire from a turquoise nugget necklace.

Although the two pieces might be Native American made, the way they are put together seems odd so this is a rocky marriage at best. Still it is a historic pendant and lovely necklace.

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The Art and Science of Wearing a Concho Belt

In Part One, All About Native American Concho Belts AKA Concha Belts, I covered a little bit about the history and makeup of a Native American concho belt.

Here I am going to talk about how to go about using that great belt you have hanging in the closet.

Men’s or Ladies?

Concho belts are unisex and can be worn with jeans as well as over shirts, blouses and with skirts and dresses.

First I’ll talk about link belts as they are quite simple.

Boulder Turquoise link belt by Platero

Link Concho Belts

Link belts are usually quite adjustable. You would purchase one approximately your waist size plus a few inches. Depending on the style of the belt, you usually can fasten the buckle’s hook on any of the rings between the conchos to get a custom fit. This is especially good if you are going to wear the belt in a variety of ways – over a blouse or shirt or through the belt loop of jeans because you will be able to fit a link belt to its intended use very quickly. Most link belts are narrow enough to fit through the loops of standard jeans. Generally 1 3/4″ wide and less will slide through belt loops.

Sterling Silver link concho belt

Depending on your waist size and the length of the link belt, you will have more or less excess belt hanging down in the front. This can be left hanging straight down or looped. 

Leather Concho Belts

Leather concho belts are traditional and popular. You need to choose a leather belt that is the correct size for the concho’s loops. If the leather strap is too narrow, the conchos will wiggle out of position. If the strap is too wide or thick, it will make it difficult to slide the conchos.

Belt is too narrow

Belt is correct width

Leather Concho belts fasten in one of three ways.

Sterling Silver link concho beltSome leather Concho Belts have a normal buckle with a tongue. With this style buckle, once you find the ideal place to punch the holes for your waist, you can cut off the end of the leather just so it tucks under the first concho as shown in the slide show below.

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Sterling Silver link concho beltOthers leather belt style Concho Belts have a large oval or rectangular “western style belt buckle” with a prong on the back that fits into a hole in the belt. 

For both of these types of belts, using a leather punch, you will need to punch a hole or two in the leather portion of the belt to custom fit the belt to your size waist. If you have a small waist, you might want to cut some of the leather off the end of the belt and slide the conchos closer together. If you have a large waist, you might want to slide the conchos farther apart from each other.

Some leather mounted concho belts have a hook and loop on the end panels such as this one by Dan Jackson.

P1170619 use

Dan Jackson leather concho belt with hook and loop fastener

With a belt like this, you would need to slide the panels closer together or farther apart on the leather belt until the hook and loop connect perfectly for your waist size.

P1170621 use

 The leather belt portion of a leather concho belt is usually extra long and blank (not punched) so that you can custom fit the belt to your size. The conchos can be slid along the leather as desired to position them perfectly for your waist size. You can also remove the conchos and buckle from the leather strip provided and place the conchos on a favorite belt that you already own.

If you are going to wear a concho belt over an untucked shirt or blouse, you would punch a hole to fit your waist and then arrange the conchos evenly spaced around the belt.  To do this, you need two simple tools. A screwdriver and a pair of pliers.

Using the screwdriver, carefully loosen the belt loops on the back, just enough so you can slide the concho into the desired position.

Then to seat it, place a cloth around the concho to protect it and gently squeeze the belt loop with the pliers to a snug fit.

You don’t have to scrunch down real hard because the loops are usually made of copper or silver, both soft metals that bend easily. You are padding the concho so the pliers don’t make any marks on the front side of the concho – or damage any stone or inlay. Be careful when squeezing with the pliers – only enough to get the job done.  Once you have the conchos set, you are ready to wear your belt.

The situation with a belt that will be worn with jeans is a little more complicated because first you want to be sure the conchos will slip through the belt loops.

Generally 1 3/4″ wide and less will slide through belt loops.


P1170615 use

A few brands of jeans have larger belt loops, I have found that Seven7 Skinny Jeans accept concho belts up to 2 1/4″ wide !


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Also, you will want to space the conchos so that they work in harmony with the belt loops. Here for example is one arrangement for a belt that has a buckle plus 11 conchos.

Front view


Back view

If you have to put your conchos and buckle on a new leather strap, simply loosen the loops and slip off the conchos. Most buckles are attached using  a 3 hole tie with lace as shown in the slide show below. It is the same tie you use to fasten a latigo to a western saddle.

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I love to wear concho belts and hope these two articles get you motivated to use yours !



Native American Concho Belts

Before buying a concho belt, it is a good idea to know a little bit about them. I hope this helps you with your purchasing decision and will add to your wearing enjoyment. This is Part One of a two part series. Part Two will cover The Art and Science of Wearing a Concho Belt.


The word concho comes from the Spanish “concha” which actually means “conch” or “seashell” but has come to mean round or oval disks (occasionally rectangles) of silver used to decorate saddles, bridles, clothing, used as jewelry such as for pendants and bolo ties and for adorning or making belts.

Concho belts are a long-time Navajo tradition yet it is generally accepted that the Navajo learned about the concept of concho belts from the Plains tribes. They then obtained the skills and designs to make silver conchos from Mexican silversmiths (plateros) that used conchos on horse tack. 

The earliest conchos were silver dollars that were hammered, stamped and edged, then slotted and strung together on a piece of leather.

A slotted concho

Later in the evolution of concho belts, the slots were no longer used. Instead, copper loops were added to the back of the conchos so they could be slipped onto a leather belt.

Copper belt loops

When the slots disappeared, they were replaced by a central design element which continues to be used today.

The slot has been replaced by a central stamped design

 Silver concho belts evolved to include overlay, storyteller, sandcast and more.

Delgarito storyteller


Vintage Sandcast

Stones were added later as a central stone, a cluster, with other design elements or as inlay. Some conchos are made entirely of a single turquoise stone. 

Vintage unmarked concho belt with central stone in a shadowbox

Vintage unmarked concho with central stone – classic

Cluster belt by Navajo Irene Chiquito

Concho with other design elements including leaves, raindrops, turquoise nuggets, coral and a bear claw. By Elaine Sam, Navajo

Inlay concho belt by Navajo Benjamin Becenti









Vintage Chip Inlay

Large Turquoise Stones made up to be the conchos on this belt

Concho Belt Features

Concho belts can be a continuous row of conchos or could have spacers in between the conchos.

Vintage Navajo Arts and Crafts Guild belt with continuous row of sandcast conchos

Margartet Platero Boulder Turquoise link belt with a continuous row of conchos

Sterling Silver link concho belt

Leather concho belt with butterfly spacers

Link concho belt with butterfly spacers

The spacers can of various shapes but traditionally are butterflies and it is easy to see why they are called that when you look at the shape of them.

The conchos and the butterflies are sometimes backed by leather which highlights the silver work and also protects the edges of the silver from bumping, wear or bending.

Leather backed, slotted conchos

How Many Conchos?

The number of conchos on a belt will depend on the length (size) of the belt, the dimensions of the conchos, whether butterfly spacers are used and so on. But some common configurations might be:

  • 6 conchos + 7 butterflies + a buckle
  • 10 to 14 conchos + a buckle
  • Link concho belts might have from 12 to 18 conchos connected by rings.

See Part Two of this series to see how the number of conchos plays out when you want to wear your belt with jeans.

Link or Leather

Generally there are two types of concho belts: link and leather. 

Link concho belts are conchos that are connected by rings with a hook fastener at one end. Link belts are used primarily over a blouse but many can also fit through the belt loops of jeans. Link belts generally cost less than leather belts.

Link belt used over a blouse

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Leather concho belts are basically a leather belt with conchos slipped onto the belt and a buckle attached to the end

Leather concho belt

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Today there are many types of Concho Belts sold, some are authentic Native American Made, but many are not. Here is how they stack up.

Museum Quality
The fine, highly worked museum-quality Navajo or Zuni Hand Made Sterling Silver Concho Belts are truly works of art and are highly collectible, seldom sold, and worn for ceremonial purposes only. They are made by very talented, traditional Native American artists out of the finest stones and Sterling Silver. Sometimes a dozen artists will get together and each will make one concho for a special belt. Some artists might make only one or two concho belts in a year….or a lifetime. Prices are commonly $20,000 and more.

Museum quality belt by Dan Jackson

Traditional Leather “Using” Belts
Traditional Sterling Silver Leather Concho Belts made by Native American silversmiths and marketed for “using” can be somewhat less complex and less expensive that the museum pieces but they are wonderful pieces of wearable art ! They are equally suitable to wear over a blouse or shirt or with jeans. These are for sale in the $1000-$9000 range.

A “using” concho belt by Calvin Martinez

Not Native American

There are all kinds of non-Native American made concho belts for sale. They are often made in a southwestern style from machined steel conchos that are chrome plated. These might sell for as low as $10.

A link concho belt that is machine made, not Native American, not sterling silver.


Sterling Silver 

Conchos can be of shiny or matte sterling silver, antiqued or highly polished. 

Coin Silver – Some older concho belts are made from coin silver. You can read more about coin silver in my previous post on the subject.

“Nickel Silver” or “German Silver” Concho Belts have no silver in them at all. They do have a silver color to them but they do not contain any silver. They are made of an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel. This is very confusing for customers because they are often fooled into thinking they have purchased a silver item because they are called Nickel Silver or German Silver. When comparing Sterling Silver (which contains 92.5% of the precious metal Silver) with Nickel Silver, you are comparing apples to oranges – that’s why the prices will vary so much. Nickel silver is hard and brittle, so is usually machined rather than hand worked. Nickel Silver concha belts are generally not hand made. They are commonly machine struck or stamped so although the design might be based on a Native American design, they are seldom Native American hand made. Nickel silver does not tarnish. It is more durable and of a much lower cost and value than Sterling Silver. Know what you are buying. Read Not All Silver is Created Equal
Plated Concho Belts might consist of a layer of silver or chrome over steel. “Pot metal” (inexpensive cast metal mixtures) and other metal alloys can also be plated. These kinds of belts are the tourist grade or costume jewelry style belts, a totally different item than Native American Made Concho Belts.

To get some ideas on how to get your concho belt ready to wear, read Part Two of this Series – The Art and Science of Wearing a Concho Belt.


Book Look: Southwestern Indian Rings by Paula A. Baxter

Like Paula Baxter states in her Dedication, I never feel “fully dressed without wearing at least one Navajo or Pueblo ring.”

In my case, sometimes I just have to wear more !  Being a Native American ring aficionado, I found this book an interesting reference.

In over 350 color photographs (taken by her husband Barry Katzen), Paula shows historic and contemporary rings made by Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Santo Domingo artists and more.  The photos here in my article are not from Paula Baxter’s book – they are photos of my personal rings and some from the store where I work.

Unmarked vintage turquoise – likely Navajo





Coral by Rose Castillo Draper, Navajo



Larry Pooyouma, Hopi

Sidney Sekakuku Jr. – Hopi

Richard and Geneva Terrazas, Zuni

Morris and Sadie Laahte, Zuni






















Contents of the Book

The Design and Appeal of Southwestern Indian Rings

Materials and Methods of Ring Construction

Historical Rings: Pre-Contact to 1930

Vintage Rings, 1930-1979: The Age of Experimentation

Master Innovator

Artistic Adornment: 1980 to Present

It is in the Master Innovator section that she shows and discusses work by Dan Simplicio, Fred Peshlakai, Lee Yazzie, Charles Loloma, Jesse Monongya, Kenneth Begay and others.

Contemporary artists include Sonwai and Arland Ben to mention just a few.

Besides displaying rings in the customary silver and turquoise, there are a number of rings showing other materials including variscite, pink coral, sugilite, petrified wood, ironwood, fossilized ivory, opal, jade, azurite, fire agate as well as many other agates, jasper, tortoise shell and more.


White Buffalo Stone by Freddy Charley









Mother of Pearl by Rose Castillo Draper, Navajo

Lapis by Navajo Bennie Ration


Natural Royston Turquoise by Navajo Walter Vandever