A History of Navajo Concha Belts
The basic form of the concha (shell) 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, horse hair, 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 first Southwest American Indian concha belt was attributed to a Navajo named Arsidi Chon (Ugly Smith). It was hammered from Mexican silver pesos in 1868 or 1869. The earliest conchas were round, light silver with diamond-shaped slots and a center bar where the leather belt was laced through. This was because Navajos had not yet learned soldering techniques at that time. The edges were scalloped with round decorative holes punched inside the scalloped edge. This style became known as First Phase Concha Belts and lasted from the late 1860s to 1880.
Beginning in the 1880s through the 1890s, trade increased for improved tools and stamps, allowing for conchas to become more elaborate. They used cold chisels, files, punches, stamps, and repoussé techniques.
In 1880, the second phase of the Navajo concha belt began when silversmiths learned to solder copper loops on the back of the conchas. This allowed for leather to be strung in the back of the concha, opening up the center of the concha for decoration.
In the early 1900s, the third phase of the concha belt began when artists learned how to set turquoise into their pieces. Turquoise was first set by Navajos in silver around 1880. The use of turquoise in silver did not become prevalent until the 1890s, due to the scarcity of the stone. It was during this time period that the Colorado and Nevada turquoise mines began to export their turquoise to New Mexico and Arizona.
Starting in the late 1910s, vertical silver butterflies were placed between the conchas. This was followed by link concha belts in the 1920s.