The Queen Conch
Queen Conch has been part of Caribbean culture for millennia. Fossil evidence indicates that the Queen Conch first appeared about sixty-five million years ago. It has been hunted as a food source for approximately 5000 years. Commercial harvest and inter-island trade have been recorded since the Mid-18th century when the Turks and Caicos Islands shipped dried conch meat to neighbouring Hispaniola.
Excavations from Pre Columbian sites indicate that approximately 2000-3000 years ago conch shells became useful as building materials, cooking pots, dippers and cups, chisels, knives, scrapers, fish hooks, earrings, buttons, pendants and more.
About the Queen Conch
Conch (pronounced “konk”) is the common name for a large marine snail. It is a gastropod mollusk, the most commercially important of which are the family Strombidae. The specific species most commonly used for food is the Queen Conch, or pink-lipped conch, Strombus Gigas
The Queen Conch habitat stretches throughout the coastal waters of northern South America, through the Caribbean and Bahamas to south Florida and Bermuda.
Queen Conch, like other Mollusks, is a soft-bodied animal that has a hard external shell composed of calcium carbonate. Queen conchs have an external, spiral-shaped shell with a glossy pink or orange interior. The operculum, which covers the shell opening, is a claw-like object which conch uses to dig into the sand and push it along.
Queen conchs achieve full size at about 3-5 years of age, growing to a maximum of about 12 inches (30.4 cm) long and weigh about 5 pounds (2.3 kg). The queen conch is a long-lived species, generally reaching 20-30 years old.
Conch are vegetarians and are most active during the night grazing on algae and detritus in the sea grass beds .Conch move by an unusual 'hopping' motion whereby the foot is thrust against the bottom, causing the shell to rise and then be thrown forward. In this manner they can graze over 400 feet (150meters) of sea grass.
STROMBUS GIGAS AS FOOD
Conch meat has been a popular food source throughout the Caribbean well before Christopher Columbus arrived in1492. In countries like the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Jamaica, Belize and the Dominican Republic Conch is a vital part of the local diet.
Conch meat has a mild, sweet clam-like flavour. Like Abalone it is extremely tough and must be pounded, or marinated in lime or lemon juice to tenderize it before cooking. Some of the most common ways of eating conch are as fritters, conch chowder, conch steaks and marinated raw conch salad.
Growing demand for this seafood delicacy and a shrinking habitat is causing a dramatic and concerning depletion of this nutritious food throughout the region.
But the percentage of conch actually consumed by the public is less than 10% of the total conch harvest. The fact that >90% of the animal is going to waste is something SGA is working towards to changing current fishing practices to global best practices.
CONCH PEARL, JEWELLERY AND CAMEOS
Strombus Gigas pearl and shell has been used for centuries by world famous craftsmen to make rare and magnificent pieces of jewellery.
A Conch Pearl is a non-nacreous pearl produced primarily by the Queen Conch (Strombus gigas). Very few Conch shells produce pearls and even fewer produce pearls of commercial quality. What causes Strombus Gigas to produce a pearl is the subject of much research and considerable debate.
The unique colour of Conch pearls correspond closely to the colours in conch shells. They vary from cream and light pink through several shades of dark pink, salmon, golden, orange and brown.
Conch Pearls, unlike Oyster Pearls, are non- nacreous, exhibit a porcelain-like appearance and have a distinctive shimmering effect. The microstructure of conch pearls comprises of partly aligned bundles of microcrystalline fibers that create a shimmering, iridescent "flame structure". This is due to concentrically arranged calcium carbonate sheets or plates arranged in a lamellar fashion.
Since the middle of the 18th Century Strombus Gigas shell has also been used by craftsmen to make Cameo adornments. Conch shells provide a vital source of carving material for the cameo cutters of Torre del Greco, Italy, the most important cameo making town in the world. Cameo portraits were an extremely popular form of adornment in the Victorian era. Many of the rich and famous of the time commissioned cameo portraits which used Conch shell as the base platform. The practice continues to this day.
STROMBUS GIGAS SHELL CHEMISTRY
Strombus Gigas shell consists of 95% Aragonite one of the two most common forms of naturally occurring calcium carbonate (CaCO3 ) The shell is very, very hard despite its similar chemistry to chalk dust!
In Strombus Gigas shell the calcium carbonate are bound by a protein like glue into planks, sheets, and layers in a highly complex architectural form. In addition the shell microstructure self-assembles and is self- healing.
The chemical similarities between the shell and pearls found within Strombus Gigas mean that research on shell structure is also valid for pearls of the same species. Non-nacreous pearls often show a flame structure that is due to a crosswise array of bundles of aragonite laths or fibers.