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Uses of the Conch

When I first came to St. John, grocery store pickings were sparse. It was way better to go out and catch you own dinner. In those days, if you didn't have any luck catching fish or diving lobsters, you knew you could always get conch.

They were very plentiful and easy to get then, just lying there in the seagrass on the bottom of warm, clear, shallow bays. What's more, they move so slowly that, unlike fish or lobster, they can't get away from you.

If the water was shallow enough, you could just reach down and pick them up. In slightly deeper water, all you would need was snorkel gear and a sack. In no time at all, you would be on your way to a delicious and healthy dinner of conch salad, conch stew, or conch in butter sauce.

It is easy to understand why conch was such an important resource to St. Johnians, beginning with the first inhabitants who arrived some 3,000 years ago. Conch meat is an excellent source of nutrition, high in protein and low in fat, not to mention its aphrodisiac qualities.

The conch's shell is just as sought after as its meat. This was especially so in prehistoric times, when conch shells were made into useful items and tools such as cooking pots, cups, dishes, knives, scrappers, chisels and fishhooks.

The shell's natural beauty allowed it to be fashioned into jewelry, which was used not only for personal adornment, but also as an article of trade.

The conch's shell can also be made into a signaling device and musical instrument. By cutting a hole in the tip and blowing into it with pursed lips, a loud trumpet-like sound is produced. It is not uncommon to hear modern day yachtsmen with every sort of electronic device available to them, using a conch shell horn to call for people ashore or to signal other boats.

What we in the West Indies call conch is more specifically known as the "queen conch." Its scientific name is Strombus gigas, and it belongs to the mollusk family of animals. The queen conch can only be found in a relatively small part of the world, the islands of the West Indies, the Caribbean and Gulf coasts of tropical America from southern Mexico to northern Brazil, southern Florida and the Florida Keys, the Bahamas and Bermuda. It was unknown in the rest of the world until the voyages of Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century.

Columbus learned about conch from the Tainos whom he met in the Bahamas. He described finding conch "as big as the head of a calf" off the coast of southern Cuba. When Columbus brought back specimens of the creature to Spain, Europeans quickly became enamored with the beautiful shells. They were collected as mantelpieces and used to make jewelry and as the raw material with which to carve cameos. During the 19th century thousands of conch shells were shipped to Europe every year for use in the manufacture of fine porcelain.

Conchs, like other mollusks, can produce pearls, which can often be found in antique jewelry. Conch pearls and conch pearl jewelry are still for sale in Nassau, Bahamas. Some are reasonably priced, but individual pearls of top quality may sell for as much as $500.00.