** Concho Belts**
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