Belts have been around for a really long time. Like all the way back to the bronze age when a fanny pack-type belt was made.
With belts' obvious importance, they spread extremely quickly and became widespread. As this growth occurred it took a course of increasing importance, belts soon became to represent status, denote ceremonial purposes, and hold pants up around the world. As this importance grew, the belts' artistic value grew, resulting in a wide range of belts, all handmade by traditional masters around the world. Three beautiful examples of this are the Native American conch belts, the Argentinian polo belts, and the Western tooled belts.
This belt was probably first made in Spain (see concha for shell), but it was really embraced by Native Americans and was adopted by their society for fashion and ceremonial purposes. It was first made by the plains Indians as belts and hair pieces, but once the Navajo got ahold of it they fell in love. Today most concho Belts are attributed to the Navajo, however, it is impossible for them to have been the first because they had concho belts before they knew smithing!
The first southwest Navajo belt is said to be made by Ugly Smith (Arsidi Chon). The ability of the Navajo was still limited, but everyone starts somewhere. They took silver pesos and hammered them into the iconic shell shapes. In addition, the now commonplace diamond shape was cut into the shells to allow for the leather to be braided through. The edges were sculpted to be decorative, but the design was very limited.
Towards the end of the first phase, the ability to solder was picked up by the Navajo, at this point they began soldering a bar across the back of the shells and running the leather of the belt through those. This allowed for the incorporation of turquoise in the middle of the shell. In addition, the makers got better at stamping and engraving resulting in more ornate patterns.
The silversmith at this point became very experienced with silver and began making more complex patterns. They started incorporating bow-like shapes between the belts, resulting in an almost solid metal appearance from the belt when worn.
The popularity of the concho Belts continued to grow resulting in a whole group of artisans hand-making these belts. To date, you can still find a small category of Native Americans making the belts for ceremonial, traditional, and retail purposes.
Argentina has a rich history of equestrian and the game of polo. “Cowboys” also called Gauchos fell in love with the game that they could play on their horses. As such it was needed to develop uniforms to separate the polo players from different teams. These belts became staples to the uniforms. Making the belt is simple yet tedious.
The leather was initially straight from the cattle the gauchos were raising. The leather today is still carefully selected to best accent the belt. The leather is still veg tanned to ensure maximum durability and longevity. It also accents the natural grain of the leather.
The artisan then follows the standard steps of making any belt such as measuring the length and width. They also cut the holes and end shape of the belt. Then the artisan will cut horizontal lines through the belt in the shape of the Aztec diamond or a different custom design. These cuts are where the artisan will begin sticking to make the iconic colors and design.
Once the design is selected the artisan will take to the final step of the belt and begin braiding the belt. Initially, the belt was weaved from the gaucho’s horse's hair. Today a wide variety of different wools are used. Almost any design imaginable can be made. This is where the artistry really begins to shine. By using a variety of different colors and techniques the artist makes a one of the kind belt.
One man, named Eduardo Heguy, really took the belt from a traditional polo gaucho belt to a fashion statement. Once it was worn off the polo field people couldn’t get enough of it, and the belt quickly spread to Europe and then the rest of the world.
In Western America, it was (and kinda still is) very common to carry a pistol around with you at all times, and of course, this pistol would sit in a holster on your leather belt. This heavy amount of weight, combined with the huge amount of importance to living made the leather belt essential to the cowboys. This resulted in an almost reverence around the belt, and the desire to push it to more intricate levels. Somewhere along the way the tooling stamps were invented, and then the only limitation on the belts became the artist's imagination.
The leather is made in the same way as almost every other classic belt, it is veg tanned. After tanning it will follow the traditional bridle leather route of stuffing the leather with waxes or tallows to ensure maximum durability. However, this leather needs to be a little bit lighter than hard bridle leather because of how much tooling needs to be done.
Once the leather is finished the artisan will use a stamp of a pattern and hammer it into the leather in the pattern they want. By using a combination of stamps and tools the artist can practically draw whatever pattern they want into the belt. This results in unlimited possibilities, and belts that will tell stories of the West.
Once the tooling is done the artisan will begin saddle stitching the belt. This step will prevent the belt from stretching or bending out of shape. This is all done by hand by crossing two separate strings over each in a particular pattern. The result is a beautifully made belt that will support a cowboy across any adventure.
Belts are not just functional accessories used to hold up pants or skirts, but they can also be seen as works of art that reflect the craftsmanship and creativity of skilled artisans. From the selection of high-quality materials to the intricate designs and patterns carved or stamped onto the leather, every step of the belt-making process requires precision, skill, and attention to detail. Belts can be designed to reflect various themes, cultures, and styles, making them unique and personal accessories. The artistic values of a belt are often appreciated by those who seek to express themselves through fashion and appreciate the beauty of handcrafted items.