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.

History

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The slot has been replaced by a central stamped design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

Overlay

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.

METALS AND MATERIALS

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
“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
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.

Paula

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.

Jasper

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paula

 

 

 

 

What does “snake eye” refer to in Native American jewelry?

I love snake eye jewelry and when I use the term I have found that even long-time Native American jewelry enthusiasts don’t know what I mean.

Snake eye is a technique of setting very small spherical pieces of turquoise. It is somewhat related to petit point and needle point but different in shape and much smaller.

Although these techniques began with Zuni artists around 1930-1940, today they are associated with both Zuni and Navajo jewelers.

All 3 techniques use cabochons, which are small stones that have been rounded on top (not faceted) and polished. It is the shape that differs.

Here is where a picture is worth a thousand words. Some examples……..first of PETIT POINT – teardrop shaped – round on one end, pointed on the  other.

Petit Point stick barrette by Navajo Zeita Begay, contemporary

Petit Point set by Phillip and Virginia Byjoe – Navajo, Vintage

Petit Point Cuff by Johnny Mike Begay, Navajo, Vintage

NOW ON TO NEEDLEPOINT – long and narrow, pointed on both ends.

Needle Point Zuni Bracelet and Ring by EVA L WYACO, contemporary

Needle Point barrette by Nathaniel Nez – Navajo, contemporary

And finally to SNAKE EYE – the reason for this post in the first place. Spherical.  These can range from small to tiny. Here are several examples of snake eye jewelry in various sizes.

Large Snake Eye – Ring by Elanda Wyaco – Zuni, vintage

Medium Snake Eye – Bolo by Bernall Natewa, Zuni, vintage

Tiny Snake Eye – Link bracelet by Stephen Haloo, Zuni, contemporary

So now that you are an expert, what would you call the ones in the photos below?

Paula

 

Many Men Thank Mary Bill on Mother’s Day

Mary Bill, along with her husband Ken Bill, is known for crafting heavy Sterling bracelets with and without gold.

Customarily, she uses at least 10 gauge sheet silver (and often 8 gauge) making her bracelets thick, durable and with great appeal to men.

Often she finishes the ends with a widened fishtail for comfort.

Sometimes she uses a lighter gauge silver and then use a combination of stamping, oxidation, and lightly brushing to give a satin finish.

She also makes substantial link bracelets

She has used and uses a number of hallmarks usually with STERLING and often with NAVAJO

Here are some of them:
K & M BILL
Mary and Ken Bill
Mary (often along with KENNETH BILL)
Mary Bill

Thank you Mary Bill and Happy Mother’s Day !

Paula

Wesley Craig AKA Wes Craig, Navajo Jeweler

Navajo artist Wesley Craig, born 1959 in Gallup, New Mexico, has been actively making jewelry since 1974. Son of Robert Etsitty Craig Jr. and Marie Craig, he was taught his craft by his mother Marie.

His hallmark is usually Wes Craig in script inside a feather but he also has used WC. Often he adds IHMSS – Indian Hand Made Sterling Silver.

Sometimes the Running Bear shop mark (RB inside a bear) is also included which would indicate he made the item at Running Bear Trading Co in Gallup, New Mexico.

His brother, Hyson Craig, is also a notable Navajo jeweler.

Paula

Where did Navajo silversmiths learn their craft?

“The Navajo were the first Southwest American Indians to work silver……A man named Astidi Sani (Old Smith) is credited by historians as being the fist Navajo silversmith. His Spanish name was Herrero Delgadito (Little Ironworker). Reportedly he acquired a basic knowledge of ironworking in 1853 from a Mexican blacksmith/silversmith.”

From Indian Jewelry, Fact & Fantasy by Marsha Land

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Early Navajo metalwork was limited to iron and was for utilitarian purposes (knife blades, bits), not adornment.

Mexican Silversmiths (plateros), on the other hand, were typically adorned with silver as a display of their wealth and, for some, their metal-working skills – silver concha belts, buckles, buttons on shirts and down the sides of pants, hat bands, silver embellished saddles and headstalls and much more.

This side view of a pair of vintage Mexican charro pants (circa 1890) give you an idea of the lavish silver embellishments. 473425273_fullsizeAn example of an ornate vintage Mexican silver saddle.

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John Lawrence Hubbell opened his first trading post at Ganado, Arizona in 1873.  When the well-dressed nomadic plateros came to the Ganado area, the Navajo took notice. Soon they began to trade horses and livestock to the plateros in exchange for learning metal-working skills.

Early Sterling Silver Cuff Bracelet

Early Sterling Silver Cuff Bracelet

Hubbell saw the potential in of Navajo silverwork for his trading post so he brought in two Mexican silversmiths (Thick Lips and Benedito) to teach their skills to the Navajo he had working for him.

From Navajo Silver, a brief history of Navajo Silversmithing

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The dictionary mentioned in the following quote was published in 1910.

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Early Sterling Silver Sandcast Concha Belt

Early Sterling Silver Sandcast Concha Belt

For a much more detailed account of Atsidi Sani AKA Herrero, as well as how Navajo smiths learned silver casting methods from plateros and much more………. read John Adair’s book:

scan0226Metal-working skills were passed from the Spaniards to the Mexicans and then to the Navajo. Interestingly, early Navajo silversmiths chose to use leather stamping tools for their designs, thus distinguishing Navajo pieces from Mexican silver work early on.

toolOf course, that was just the beginning and soon Navajo silversmiths, and other Native American craftsmen, began to develop unique designs and styles which continue to evolve today.

Carinated Cuff Bracelet

Carinated Cuff Bracelet

Watch for more on this topic in a future post.

Paula