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Shells of Silver

Author: John Roark
Issue: March, 2018, Page 184
Photo by Michael Woodall

A concho belt made in the late 1800s. Inset: Archival photo of a Navajo silversmith from the same era.
A leather strap adorned with scalloped silver medallions, the concho belt is one of the most authentically recognizable Southwestern fashion accessories. Conchos are named after the Spanish word for “shell” because their ruffled edges represent the conch, a symbol associated with the patron saint of Spain, James the Greater. When Spanish conquistadors made their way to the American Southwest in the 1600s, their saddles and bridles were adorned with the glittering discs, which were eventually adopted and refined by Navajo silversmiths as a decorative element and fashioned into belts. 

The earliest conchos featured a diamond-shaped center cutout, through which leather was threaded. Around 1880, artisans learned to solder copper loops to the back of the discs, providing more surface area for elaborate ornamentation. The turn of the century saw the addition of turquoise embellishment.

While there has been speculation that recurring designs on the conchos were symbolic in origin, the consensus among experts is that the embellishments are strictly aesthetic.

“Traders and retailers like to create a little romance, a little sizzle if it helps sell a story,” says Mark Bahti, owner of Bahti Indian Arts in Tucson and Santa Fe and author of numerous books on Native American handicrafts. “Such stories can make it difficult to parse out where the inspiration came from. Most likely, Navajo artists replicated what they saw and added their own artistic spin to it.”

The accessory has been a fashion fixture for decades across a wide demographic. “In the 1950s, it was almost a rite of passage for young women in southern Arizona to buy a concho belt when they graduated from high school,” Bahti says. In the 1960s, The Door’s frontman, Jim Morrison, ignited a national frenzy by wearing one onstage with leather pants. In the ’70s, Cher took up the torch, and in the ’80s Ralph Lauren made the belt a coveted women’s accessory. Today, an authentic belt from the 1800s can fetch as much as $40,000. Contemporary versions can sell for $4,000 and up, depending on the artist.

Even though the earliest designs were less sophisticated, many collectors find them to be the most desirable. Self-taught Navajo silversmith Perry Shorty, one of the most sought-after jewelry artisans in the market today, says that many of the belts he is asked to create hark back to the art form’s genesis. “I don’t think we give those early silversmiths enough credit for their skills, given what they had to work with at the time. They understood the metal and how far they could push it,” he notes. “Every now and then, concho belts are ‘rediscovered’ as if they’re something new, but they’ve been with us for a very long time.”
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