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The slot has been replaced by a central stamped design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.
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
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
Leather concho belts are basically a leather belt with conchos slipped onto the belt and a buckle attached to the end
Leather concho belt
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.
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.
METALS AND MATERIALS
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.