The word concho, sometimes spelled concha, comes from the Spanish word meaning shell. Some of the first “conchos” were made of melted silver dollars and resembled a shell—it is commonly thought this is how the name came about. In Spanish, the correct word is concha, with an a at the end and is pronounced like an ah sound. However, most people now-a-days refer to the Native American style belt as a concho belt, with an o.
Although it is commonly said the Navajo (Dine’) borrowed the idea from Spaniards. Concho Belts reportedly began appearing in Navajo country in the late 1860s or early 1870s. Other Native Americans including the Zuni and Hopi also made traditional Concho Belts before long.
The basic form was derived from hair ornaments of the Southern Plains Indians, called hair plates. Hair plates were usually round, undecorated, and with smooth edges. They were strung vertically on red trade cloth, horsehair, or leather. Men would wear this stripe of adornment in their hair and women would wear them as belts, sometimes reaching six feet long. They were made from German Silver, Copper, and Brass.
The Navajos owned concha belts long before they learned silversmithing. They obtained them from the Southern Plains Indians, through looting or trade. The concept of the concha belt began with the Plains Indian’s belts but was blended with early Spanish/Mexican concha designs (1700 – 1750 CE). These early designs originated from iron harness buckles and cast silver conchas with scalloped edges used for spurs.
The Navajo (Dine’) learned how to work silver in the mid-nineteenth century. They had long appreciated silver jewelry that they acquired from Southwestern Hispanics and Plains tribes, but it is generally believed that they did not learn how to make metal jewelry until circa 1850 when Atsidi Sani became friends with a Mexican smith named Nakai Tsosi. Tsosi taught him how to work iron so that he could make bridles that he could sell to other Navajo. After the end of the Navajos’ internment at Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner in 1868, Nakai Tsosi taught Atsidi Sani how to smith silver for jewelry. He, in turn, taught his sons and other Navajos.
Another silversmith, Atsidi Chon, went to Zuni in 1872, where he taught Lanyade how to work silver. Other men in turn taught silversmithing in the 1870s to men in Acoma, Laguna, and Isleta.
The railroads arrived in the Southwest in the 1880s. The Fred Harvey Company opened shops in the railroad stations and provided a ready market for Navajo silver. As a result, silver smithing flourished and designs were elaborated, often reflecting Anglo taste. The concho belt to the left has arrows that are intricately worked into the design, an example of some of the high-quality Fred Harvey jewelry that was offered.
During the Depression through World War II and into the 1950s, the Navajo made concho belts that were not on leather, perhaps because of a shortage of leather. They are made out of sterling silver. They were made for sale. Most women had small waists at that time; thus, many people wear this style as a necklace today.
As time went on, the designs became more elaborate. The center of the concho is now pushed out through repousse’ work and the center of the concho is closed
The earliest concho belts are now referred to as “First Phase” belts. This style of belt was made before Native silversmiths had learned much about soldering. The conchos were hammered out from melted coins, cut and filed into shape, engraved and a diamond shape slot was cut out of the middle of the concho, with a bar left across the center of the diamond shaped slot for the leather belt to loop through. The first phase conchos required no soldering and is generally thought in terms of the years from the late 1860s to the 1880s.
In the “Second Phase” of concho belt development, the silversmith had began to solder. He now soldered a silver, or later a copper, strap or bar across the back of a concho to run the leather belt through (more often silver in those early years). This allowed for the entire face of the concho to be decorated and kept the leather belt on the backside of the concho. The second phase is generally thought of as being durning the years of the 1890s through early 1900s.
“Third Phase” of concho belt development, you started to see the “butterfly” appear between conchos and also the use of turquoise as an adornment on the face of a concho. A “butterfly” is simply another smaller concho in between the bigger conchos and its shape somewhat resembles that of a butterfly (a bow shape). Copper for the strap across the back becomes more prevalent than a silver bar as you go further on in time also. A belt with butterflies (and sometimes turquoise) from the early 1900s through the 1930s is generally thought of as “early third phase” and a belt from the 1940s through 70s (or so) would often be referred to as “vintage” while anything newer would be modern to contemporary.
The timelines listed above are general and may differ slightly depending upon who you ask. Natives first had Concho Belts for personal use only, but around the turn of the last century, tourist demand had kicked in and a new outlet for the belts emerged. This is when you started seeing them produced in larger numbers and is also why a belt produced after 1900 is much easier to find than one from the late 1800s.
Today, a fine Concho Belt will be made of sterling silver (or better — .999 silver and gold are also known to be used). They are often embellished with Turquoise (or other gemstones) and are usually mounted on a good leather strap. At times, copper, nickel silver-, or silver-plated overlay is also used, but these kinds of belts are usually thought of as lower grade and the price should be reflective.
Another form of concho belt which appeared around mid-century was the “link” style concho belt. The link Concho belts are connected by rings between the conchos and fasten with a hook that can be attached at various places on the belt. No leather is used.