To the ancient Aztecs, there are two lives for the common conch shell. Once home to an oft-eaten sea critter, empty conch shells were cleaned and carved to be transformed into trumpet-like horns called, "quiquiztli." And the musicians who played them “quiquizoani.”
From the Conch Republic of Key West to the Bahamas Islands, the horn sounds at sunset; a blessing to the sea gods.
In our time living aboard, Karen and I have come to love the sound, and recently decided to make our own horn for Largo. Lucky for us, our cruising home du jour is the Bahamas, where Queen Conch or Strombus gigas shells are plentiful.
The Queen Conch is King (Queen?) of the Bahamian diet and local island fare. Like the lists of endless shrimp dishes in the movie Forrest Gump, conch meat in the Bahamas is served in salad and fritters, fried and fingered, beaten, battered, buttered, chopped and chipped, filleted, pounded, and, of course, fresh sliced.
In fact, conch alone amounted to some $60 million dollars of gross revenue in the Bahamas in 2003, but overfishing of conch has become an international concern. Because of this, we suggest you find your shells already harvested, if possible. They sound just as sweet. Where we currently are on Great Harbour Cay, piles of beautiful, harvested conch shells lay about the shoreline. You can differentiate empty shells from inhabited shells by checking for a harvest cut just above the first ring of small horns (counting from the body outward). Harvesters make the cut in order to break the muscular connection and allow the conch body to slide loose from the shell.
Once you've chosen a specimen, you can follow our patented Horn-making list below thanks to some onsite teaching from a local master, Gary Donovan. For those traveling to the area, Donovan is a regular face at Great Harbour Cay Marina and teaches free conch horn making classes to anyone interested.
- Find, buy, or responsibly harvest a meat-free shell about 7-10" long.
- Soak the shell in a bleach solution for at least a day. Clean and rinse.
- Cut off the pointed tip of the shell at the third row of small horns (counting from the body outward) using a small Dremel or hacksaw. The outside diameter of the blowing hole should be about the size of a quarter. Because you plan to hold the horn with the flared opening facing skyward, make the cut at about a 20-degree angle so the shell will easily fit against your lips.
- Using a Dremel tapered grinding stone or a piece of sandpaper, smooth the blowing hole edges, and grind out the inside of the opening gently. According to Donovan, it is sometimes necessary to Dremel or drill through to the inside of the horn to create the air passage.
- Have 2 part, 5 minute epoxy ready. Using small strips of bandaids or sticky tape, and a dental tool or toothpick, create a backing behind the harvest hole. Spread the mixed epoxy over the backing and harvest hole, making sure to overlap the edges. Sprinkle sand on the epoxy (it strengthens it and looks cooler) and let the epoxy harden.
Now all you need is a a sundowner at sunset and you've got your very own conch horn. What should it sound like? Each shell features a unique size and shape, so you never know until you give it a whirl. Ours has a brassy deep one-note blare that reaches the horizon and threatens to shatter glass. It’s perfect.
For some inspiration, check out jazz trombonist Steve Turre playing a number of sea shells, including a Queen Conch!