A concho belt is a distinctive kind of belt that is both functional and a work of art. In fact, concho belts are considered highly prized pieces of jewelry since they’re typically constructed of braided leather and round or oval pieces of silver embellished with gemstones. These adornments are displayed in groups and are named from the Spanish word conchas to mean “shells.” For this reason, a concho belt is sometimes referred to as a concha belt.
The traditional concho belt is unique to the Zuni and the Diné (Navajo), the tribes indigenous to the Southwestern United States. However, the Spanish, Mexicans, and possibly other people native to the area, influenced its evolution. Initially, the Diné learned the art of metal working from the Mexicans, and the earliest concho belt decorations were likely adaptations of the decorative bridle buckles found there. Later, as trade with Europeans increased in the Plains territory, the Diné began to hammer silver to make conchas from the coins they brought with them. In fact, the Diné were the first Native Americans in the region to produce silver jewelry.
The concho belt, which is worn by both men and women, is still handmade today according to traditional standards by skilled craftsmen. Now, as in the early 19th century, these belts are valued for much more than ornamental worth. Each one is intended to tell a story about the artisan that fashioned it, the significance of which is not lost upon passing ownership of the belt. In fact, concho belts represent an oral tradition that is passed on to each generation within a family. Of course, they also represent considerable material wealth and can fetch very handsome profits if sold or traded.
Authentic concho belts were once reserved exclusively for ceremonial purposes. In fact, this is where the sequencing of conchas and the stones used to create the design becomes meaningful. For instance, turquoise, the most commonly used gemstone, is recognized for its healing properties. Other popular materials used to decorate concho belts are lapis, red coral, and oyster shell.
While gemstones are an important element to concho belts, not all conchas contain a gemstone overlay. Some are simply brushed and embossed with designs. In addition, some are made of copper rather than silver.
Aside from the materials, antiquity is a factor in determining the monetary value of a concho belt. In fact, very early pieces are particularly favored, due to the beautiful patina the metal and leather develop over time. These specimens are also often quite hefty, containing eight or nine large pieces of sterling silver that add to its visual appeal as well as its weight. While some of these pieces now reside in museums and private collections, many are still circulated for sale by antique and ethnic jewelry dealers.