Conch shells have maintained, through the years, a source of endless fascination for me. I have collected them, polished and given as tokens to friends, and I have collected them, in various sizes and states of beauty, since I arrived in the Caribbean two decades ago. Therefore, it was a real discovery when I came upon the gigantic Conch Shell Island that exists on one of the shores of Anegada recently while out for a dinghy ride among the reefs. What a find – there are thousands of conch shells piled up, one on top of another, discarded, after their meat was taken, into a pile that grew into an island through the 20th century.
The graceful conch shell is said to be of a perfect 1.618 proportion, beautiful and beguiling, and I am told that the construction of the shell itself appears to involve a high degree of expert masonry. The structure of the conch shell is currently being studied for aerospace and computer industry applications. The calcium (actually aragonite) is woven by the growth of the mollusk inside of it into a “brick-and-mortar-like micro-architecture” that is 1,000 times stronger than simple previously used aragonite-like ceramics.
In reality, the conch shell starts out as the home for what is basically a big snail. These intelligent gastropods travel in schools and are suspicious of fishermen. With two eyes on long “gelatinous” stalks peering out into the world, they slowly feed on the ocean floor while, at the same time, growing shells that curve in a proportion identical to spiral galaxies in our universe. Classified as those that turn to the left and those that turn to the right, shells that spiral in clockwise directions are said to symbolize the expansion of infinite space and the celestial motion of the sun, moon, planets and stars across the heavens – there’s a little new age physics for you!
The conch shell was a vessel for precious oils and medicines in the Indus Valley civilization more than 4,000 years ago. Conch Shell jewelry has been recently found at Mehergarth, the ruins of a 9,000 year old settlement, the oldest human settlement found to date, in Pakistan. In Tibet, the conch shell is used in Buddhist rituals, both blown and as a receptacle for holy water. In India the sound of the conch is associated with the sacred syllable AUM, the first sound of creation. In fact, India itself looks like the shape of a conch shell on the map.