'From zero to 60 in no time at all'

Pueblo artisan steps up to keep her father's silversmithing legacy alive

By Doug Cantwell
dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 11/26/19

Megan Concha proudly shows off her dad's hammer, which clearly has a lot of miles on it. Misshapen with use, it has served Rodney Concha for over 30 years as he stamped designs into conchos, manta pins, belt buckles, bracelets and earrings - until he was taken ill last spring at age 52 with kidney disease.

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'From zero to 60 in no time at all'

Pueblo artisan steps up to keep her father's silversmithing legacy alive

Posted

Megan Concha proudly shows off her dad's hammer, which clearly has a lot of miles on it. Misshapen with use, it has served Rodney Concha for over 30 years as he stamped designs into conchos, manta pins, belt buckles, bracelets and earrings - until he was taken ill last spring at age 52 with kidney disease.

Megan Concha, 30, picked up that hammer just nine months ago. "I'm still new to all this," she said. "I started when my dad went into the hospital, and he was behind on an order he'd been working on. He had done only one concho for a belt, so I said to myself, 'I think I can do this.'"

She first practiced on a bunch of pennies that her brother had rolled out for her on the family's rolling mill, a hand-cranked device Rodney used to flatten coins into blanks. But it wasn't just the handful of pennies. Megan had grown up hanging out with her dad, watching and absorbing as only a child can and internalizing his process.

Megan Concha's mom, Mary Concha, said, "I think her dad was freaked out when he got sick. Everyone told him, 'Don't let your art die with you.' Megan picked it up just like that - from zero to 60 in no time at all."

It wasn't long, however, before Concha was running variations on her dad's 50-odd designs, incorporating her own elements. "A few months into this, I made a pair of earrings that were my own design," she said. "I put them out on our table, and about 20 minutes later a couple came along and bought them. They also ordered a matching bracelet, so I came up with this," she added, showing a copy of the ornate original she'd made for the couple. "It's been a really popular design."

Tools have a history

Concha starts with old silver coins - dimes, quarters, half-dollars and dollars - that date from 1964 or earlier. They contain 90 percent silver, whereas later United States coins have been alloyed with copper, nickel and other metals.

You'd think coins of that vintage would be prized by collectors and hard to find, but they still turn up if you're looking for them. "This one guy came to the pueblo looking for drums," Concha recalled. "He happened to have a bag of 400 old silver dimes. He traded me 125 of them for a board of earrings, which he took back to sell at his trading post in Colorado."

Concha's brother, John Paul, stepped in to roll the coins for her, a job that requires considerable elbow grease. The rolling mill can be set to create round or oval shapes, and it produces a blank of larger diameter than the original coin. "You can still feel the ridges along the edge, though," Megan Concha said, noting a manta pin she had made from a half-dollar.

After John Paul rolled them out, the blanks needed more preparation. "They come out looking pretty dark," she said, "so we put them in an acid pickling solution to take the tarnish off. Then we heat them with a torch to soften them a little so the stamping will set better."

Before that happens, Concha does the layout work, marking fine lines with a template to find the center point where the design work will begin. She has all of her dad's tools to work with, including 100 or so "stamps," each with its own design motif. These high-grade steel tools, she explained, were made by legendary Taos silversmith Russell Green.

"Russell made these all by hand," said Concha, "from piston rods salvaged from old car engines." Some have begun to mushroom at the top end from thousands of Rodney's hammer strikes.

Once she's stamped the blank with several motifs to create the design, Concha "domes" the piece using another of her dad's tools - an ancient 9-inch-diameter log with the bark stripped off that looks as if it's been ravaged by woodpeckers. Each of the holes is in fact a carefully carved hollow that produces just the right dome or dish.

"I can remember going on a wood-hunting trip with my dad when I was about 5 and him picking out this very piece," said Concha. "It had to be pretty soft wood for this purpose." She inserted the blank into the proper hole and then hammered it to shape using a spherical tool that could well have been the ball from an old trailer hitch.

From there, Concha stepped outside to the grinding wheel for the first round of finishing. She then applied another acid solution with a Q-tip that blackened all the stamped lines, bringing them into high relief. After that, it was off to the buffing wheel to do the final polishing.

'Very much a family operation'

"I started going to work with my dad at a very young age, " said Concha. "As soon as I could walk, I spent every moment with him. Today, he's on dialysis, and I take care of him - I go to every appointment. He and I are still like peas and carrots."

Her dad always encouraged her and her brother to seek out self-employment, not only as a way to find more satisfaction in their work but also to keep it close to home. "My mom has her baking business - we sell our things right out in front of the house here, so we're very much a family operation," Concha said.

They have, however, looked toward the outside world to ramp up their sales. Concha started posting photos of her work on Instagram, and soon people were asking how they could purchase it.

That prompted her to acquire a Square®, the small digital device that lets her transact credit card purchases with her mobile phone. She's now researching possible outlets such as Facebook where she can set up an online "shop" to start marketing and selling out in the cyberworld.

Mary chimed in to reminisce about the pre-internet days when she and Rodney had put together huge orders for the Home Shopping Network. "Those were wild times," she recalled with a laugh. "We would assemble and ship 3,000 pairs of earrings, working around the clock. Maybe too much of a good thing - my husband got really bored because he had to do all the same design."

Mary noted with pride, however, that the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian selected two of Rodney's pieces for display, and some of his designs have sold through the Smithsonian's gift catalog.

Talented people recognize talent

Megan Concha marvels at all the people she's met, all the opportunities that have come her way in just a few short months. Patricia Michaels, a Taos Pueblo tribal member and fashion designer who's featured on the "Project Runway" TV series and participates in Fashion Week in New York, recently asked Concha to start doing accessory pieces for her fashion line.

Angelo and Jacquelene McHorse, who own and operate Bison Star Naturals, the successful line of skin care products based at the pueblo, also took notice of Concha's work and invited her to take part in their artisan market during the summer.

"I've been so fortunate to have my dad's legacy, to pick up and follow where he left off," Concha said. "It's an honor to do this work, and it feels like it comes so natural."

And she does it all right there in the family living room. With her dad in his current condition, Concha often puts in an old action movie for him to take his mind off things.

"I'll just be sitting there with him, stamping away," she said. "It's great that he can see me carrying on. It lifts his spirits, and I'm quite sure it has a positive effect on his health, too."

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