What is a Concho Belt?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

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.

Turquoise is commonly used in concho belts.
Turquoise is commonly used in concho belts.

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.

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

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Discussion Comments


I have an Australian-made version of a concho belt which has 10 oval brass 'coins' on a strip of brown leather and a matching buckle. I've had it for about 30 years. It appears to have been handmade by a leather craftsperson and has a classy Country and Western look. The brass 'coins' have been attached to the belt by a metal stud.


If you want the concho belt look, but without the actual concho belt, many stores sell imitation rhinestone/silver plated belts that can look just as good. Also, they cost only a fraction of the price, so it can be a good way to find out if the concho look works for you.


I really love southwestern jewelry, and especially concho belts.

I think its great that this article made the point about how the value of a concho belt is not merely material, but also artistic, and even spiritual.

For those of you lucky enough to own a concho belt, you should appreciate what you have -- these beautiful pieces of artwork are truly treasures.


Is it hard to make concho belts? I am taking a metalworking class, and would love to try my hand at making one of these things.

Does anybody out there make these; can you tell me if it's a good project for a moderately experienced metalworker, or if I need to find another project to do?


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