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The slot has been replaced by a central stamped design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

Chip Inlay Belt Buckle – Identification Please?

Hello Paula,

I was poking around to try to identify a belt buckle which I bought based on it having been purchased on an Indian Reservation in the 1970s. It’s large and heavy and arrestingly designed so I thought I might be able to find the tribe and artist. I did find another similar buckle that had been sold and looks like it had been made by the same artist but there was no info on that one either. Would you be willing to take a look? Linda

Vintage Chip Inlay Belt Buckle

Thanks, Paula.

This is 4-1/8″ by 3″ and weighs 120 grams. Serious size.  There is turquoise, coral and a brown stone about which I’m not sure. Could be tiger’s eye but I’m really not sure. All set in black, larger pieces of stone than usual and the design seems exceptional. I found this buckle by googling, which may have been done by the same person. I’d love to identify at least which peublo or tribe, if not the artist. This
is the other one I found which looks to be the same artist:

Reference Chip Inlay Buckle

Information with the above reference buckle:

Beautiful heavily vintage 50’s-60’s turquoise and coral inlay Phoenix buckle! The buckle consists of a turquoise and coral large chip inlay. The artist continues decorating with multiple etched floral designs completely around the inlay and throughout the buckle. The artist finishes by attaching a stationary solid belt holder and pin on back.The buckle measures approximately 3″ by 2 7/16″ and weighs 69.6 grams (2.45 ounces or 2.24 troy ounces). It is unsigned and possibly Mexican Alpaca Silver. It does have a yellowish haze to it meaning the other metals are more copper than nickel. The buckle will accommodate up to a 2″ wide belt.

My buckle is much more lovely in person than the pics, but enough to give  you a good idea, I hope. Linda

Hi Linda,

Well you did most of the work here ! My job is easy. Before even seeing the photo and information on the reference buckle that you sent, I suspected this was a Mexican-made buckle. Although you didn’t send a photo of the back of the buckle, where one can see the effects of time on the metal, I suspect this is not sterling silver but Alpaca. If you suspect it could be sterling silver, a simple test at a jewelers will tell you whether it is or not. If it is sterling silver, due to its weight, it would be worth a lot more than if it was alpaca.

Alpaca is a term that is often stamped on Mexican (and German) pieces and sometimes it is called Alpaca Silver but it contains no silver at all. Alpaca is usually composed of 65% copper, 18% nickel and 17% zinc. It is similar to German Silver and Nickel Silver (read full article about silver here).

The stylized road runner design and the use of the large chips does not look Native American to me. Nor does the engraving which appears on both buckles. The chips seem to be made of turquoise, coral and perhaps faux tortoiseshell.

So when you say you purchased the buckle based on the fact it was purchased on an Indian Reservation in the 1970s, it sounds like it might have been misrepresented. But that is just my humble opinion !

The main thing is that if you like it, enjoy it ! Thanks for writing and best of luck.



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Jewelry Silver – Not All Silver is Created Equal

Silver
Native American Silversmithing Styles, and Methods

Sterling Silver Navajo Miniature KettleSterling Silver Navajo BeadsNot All Silver Is Equal

©  2007 Horsekeeping © Copyright Information

Pure silver is generally too soft for jewelry making, so it is combined (alloyed) with other metals.

Sterling Silver: Sterling silver and is stamped as “sterling” or “.925” which indicates that it is 92.5 percent pure silver. By law sterling silver must contain no less than 92.5% fine silver with the remainder being any other metal. The other 7.5 percent of the material is comprised of alloys, usually copper (which is what causes sterling silver to tarnish).

Sterling Silver Navajo Beads

Mexican Silver: Mexican silver is usually 95% Silver and 5% Copper. After World War II, for jewelry and objects made in Taxco, Mexico, the Mexican government issued an assay mark guaranteeing the purity to be 925 or higher. This mark is referred to as the “spread eagle” mark. The original mark did look like an eagle, but with modifications over the years, the mark was simplified. The number inside the mark is a workshop or city designation. In 1979, this mark was abandoned in favor of a series of registry letters and numbers assigned to individuals and workshops. Mexican silver is softer so can bends more easily than sterling silver…….which can be either a good or a bad thing.

Argentium® Sterling Silver: A registered and patented alloy of sterling silver, copper and a small amount of the element germanium, developed in 1984. This alloy has excellent tarnish resistance and requires minimal maintainance to remain looking like new. This phenomenon is a result of a transparant layer of germanium oxide thats forms on the surface of the metal and slows the formation of silver sulphide, or tarnish. Tarnish is formed when sulfur reacts with the copper in sterling silver to form silver sulphide. This sulfur can come from the air, perfume, deodorant or skin, among other sources. An occasional wash and rinse and/or wipe with a soft cotton cloth is all that’s needed to keep an object made from Argentium Sterling Silver in pristine condition.

German Silver: It is not actually silver at all! Also called nickel silver, this popular alloy contains copper, zinc and nickel, but has no silver in it. Also sold under manufacturers’ trade names, this material is very hard and generally must be machined.

Nickel Silver: See German Silver above.

Silver Overlay : This can have several meanings. When used in high-end tack accents, belt buckles and so on, silver overlay is made by mechanically bonding Sterling Silver Navajo Beadsa layer of sterling silver over a thicker base metal, usually nickel. This creates a metal with the qualities of sterling at a lower price. Sterling overlay should be thick enough to allow the silversmith to make his engraving cuts in the sterling layer without cutting through to the base metal below. But in Native American jewelry, silver overlay refers to 100% Sterling Silver, both layers are sterling silver. The top layer is cut out with a jeweler’s saw and placed on a solid sterling silver base. The Hopi Indians excel at Sterling Silver overlay.

Silver plate: Silver plating is the least expensive method of utilizing silver in decorative work. To silver plate, a base metal is electrostatically charged, so that a very thin layer of silver adheres to the base. The silver is usually applied as a liquid and is at approximately 7 millionths of an inch thick. Silver plate cannot be hand engraved, but it’s often applied over design cuts made in the base metal.