Sunday, December 23, 2007

Conus and cone salape’ beads

The Conus family of marine snails is a favorite of mine because of their beauty, their interesting biology and their diversity. I read in the Conus Biodiversity Website ( that there are about 500 extant or existing species around the world making it “the largest genus of marine invertebrates.” Just check out Hardy's Internet Guide to Marine Gastropods: (
if you want to visually check out what I mean. They are commonly known as the cone shells because of they’re typically shaped like a cone.

Cone shells are popular with collectors and are probably only second to the cowries in popularity. They are also highly specialized predators that can be categorized by what they eat: vermivorous (worm-eating), molluscivorous (mollusc-eating) and piscivorous (fish-eating). To eat, most gastropods have a toothed ribbon-like structure in their mouths composed of chitin that is used to cut and chew food. Cone shells however, have poisonous harpoon-like barbs that can stun or kill their prey. In fact, there have been several human fatalities recorded due to the handling and successive stinging from cone shells. Some species are known to have up to 60 barbs at one time! When I talk to kids about how powerful a sting is from a fish- eating cone is, I usually ask, “What’s faster, a snail of a fish?” Kids of course are smart and they usually answer, “Fish!” and then I go on explaining that that is the reason why the toxin from a cone snail needs to be powerful: to catch that fast fish! Check out my friend Bob’s blog for his post on cones and a cool picture of a poison barb:

It is said that it is the piscivores that are the most dangerous. Most have an aperture or opening that is larger in comparison to other members of their family to accommodate their catch. On Saipan, piscivores that I have seen include Conus geographus (Geography cone), C. bullatus (Bubble cone), C. tulipa (Tulip cone), C. striatus (Striated cone), and C. aulicus (Princely cone). Suffice to say, no one should be handling any live cone snails to avoid getting stung. These toxins do have benefits though in that they are being studied for applications in medicine and neuroscience.

Cone shells were also used by the ancient Chamorros for ornaments. One of the most common cones utilized in Micronesia is Conus litteratus (Linnaeus, 1758) or Lettered cone, a large and common cone found in shallow lagoons. Its range is from Indo to the Western Pacific and they grow in between 60 – 186 mms. Artifacts that have been found in Micronesia that are made of the Lettered cone include bracelets, ear ornaments, and coin-shaped beads, or salape’. Here is a picture from the Museum of History and Culture in Garapan, Saipan of Conus salpe’ beads and bracelets alongside some cowrie beads. The bracelet fragments on the right are made from Lettered cone.

The next set of pictures is of a conus artifact found at the beach of Puntan Achugao, Saipan. It is about 49 mm in diameter and still sports 16 visible brown spots, clearly identifying it as a Lettered cone.
It bears a striking resemblance to an illustration of an unfinished Conus ring artifact from the island of Kosrae in the pages of the Catalogue of Prehistoric Micronesian Artifacts Housed in Japan (Intoh) albeit the pictured artifact is only about 25 mm.

Other illustrations of Conus artifacts in the catalogue show that some sported decorative groove lines and some that were just smooth. The second picture bellow are of illustrations of Pohnapean Conus bracelet artifacts.

This is a picture of a big Conus litteratus (Linneaus, 1758) or Lettered cone found dead in the Saipan Lagoon. It is about 95 mm. The shell is solid and heavy with a creamy white color dotted with black dashes. The thin proteinaceous outer layer called the periostracum can be clearly seen on this sample as the yellowish sheen on the shell. This cone is vermivorous, preferring to eat marine worms.

My friend Bob inspired me to layout shell photos like this with the top, bottom, left side, and right side, anterior and posterior views side by side. He does a beautiful job photographing and laying out his shell photos that I was inspired to do the same. Check out his masterful works in

I decided to make coined shaped money beads or salape’ of the ancient Chamorro replica alas or alahas (ornamentations) just to see how they would look alongside the Spondylus beads that I was already making. I have yet to try and cut bracelets out of big cones that I have found since their natural beauty keeps me from altering them in any way. So far, I’ve only worked broken fragments that I have found while beachcombing around Saipan’s beaches. Here are some of my finished alahas.

I can guarantee that no two necklaces are the same in my collection and the varied shell fragments that I use maintain it that way. I found a pretty good-sized fragment of a Conus striatus or Striated cone and decided that there was enough make two cone salape’ alongside classical-shaped Spondylus salape’. I call these two the Dinga’, which means twins in Chamorro. I hope one day a couple will buy this from me and have matching necklaces, or maybe a parent can get them for two of their famagu’on (children) so that they can keep the twins together.

Here are two examples of intact Conus striatus (Linnaeus, 1758) shells that were found after a storm in Obyan Beach, Saipan. The first one is about 85 mm and is pink dark brown striated blotches. It looks faded compared to the second sample that is about 52 mm and has darker brown blotches and finer striations. The Striated cone is a common shallow water dweller that can grow up to 100 mm with an Indo-Pacific range. The lips on the aperture or opening of the two samples are chipped and jagged from being tossed around during the storm but they still retain thir beauty. The Striated cone has a potent toxin since it is piscivorous and has proved fatal to humans who mishandled them.

The next alas I made includes a cone salape’ made from a Calf cone fragment. I really like this piece because the brown lightning patterns really compliment the orange Spondylus salape’ quite well. Here is what an intact Calf cone or Conus vitulinus (Hwass in Bruguiére, 1792) looks like. It is about 50 mm in length but can reach about 80 mm. They live up to a depth of 25m with a range from Indo- to West-Pacific. This cone was found at the beach in American Memorial Park. It is also called Veal cone. The top part of the shell is has a bit of erosion damage.

One contemporary Spondylus haguet (hook) that I showcased on an earlier post had a complimenting Soldier cone salape’ (money bead). I cut the bead out from a Soldier cone fragment. This haguet is now owned by my friend Greg M. for a Christmas/farewell gift since he left earlier this month to live in California.

Here is a small intact Soldier cone or Conus miles (Linneaus, 1758) that is about 35 mm in length. It can grow up to 7.5 cm, has an Indo-Pacific range, and is a shallow to moderately deep-water dweller. The details on this shell are quite striking especially the orange axial streaks on green patches. I am not sure what type of habitat it inhibits since I found this shell dead while beach combing in Obyan Beach, Saipan. The Soldier cone is vermivorous.

I call this piece Hina, a Chamorro word for poison since it comes from a very dangerous cone shell, the Textile cone. I matched it with a small cone shell salape’ from a Gold leaf cone fragment, also reputedly dangerous. This piece really turned out nicely and I was glad I found a big enough fragment to cut for a toggle.

Here is the beautiful but highly dangerous Conus textile or Textile cone (Linneaus, 1758). It is a common shallow reef dweller yet beautifully patterned with triangular marks. It has a moderately high spire and a pointed apex or tip. This shell is about 90mm in length and was found in PauPau Beach, Saipan. It eats other molluscs, hunting other shells at night. This specimen still has its light tan periostracum intact.

I don’t have very good complete sample of a Gold Leaf Cone or Conus auricomus (Hwass in Bruguière, 1792), but here’s a picture of some fragments that I found in Coral Ocean Point, Saipan. They are part of the textile cone group that have the beautiful tented patterns. Check out my friend Bob’s post on the one he found on Guam:
It is also known as the Clavus cone, and can grow up to 69 mm and has an Indo-Pacific range.

I’ll definitely continue to use cone shell fragments in the alahas that I am making because the few that I showcased here turned out so beautifully. I only utilize dead and fragmented shells to help conserve them in the Commonwealth’s waters. Again, cone shells are dangerous to handle alive! Plus, if you are thinking about collecting shells, I urge you to find out as much information as you can before starting. The World Wide Web is a good place to start and please talk to someone at the Division of Fish and Wildlife, Puerto Rico, Saipan about the legality of collecting and applying for a permit. Their number is 670-664-6000/1.

Thank you once again for letting me share and have a Merry Christmas.

The Beachcomber

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Laurina and the moon

My friend Yerma R. sent me a forwarded email about National Friendship Week that listed several virtues of what a true friend is. The original email was sent sometime in October and I can’t seem to Google when the actual dates of the week are. Anyway, I usually don’t even read emails that are of the “FW:” kind but it just so happened that I have been thinking about posting about my best friend here on Saipan. I thought I should get some good solid quotations and sayings regarding friendship, but I decided against it because they don’t seem so genuine. I’ll just list a few things that I appreciate about my best friend recently here and end this blog describing a piece that I cut for her.

  • You are quick to laugh at my stupidity, and quick to forgive my faults
  • Once, we argued for a whole semester and didn’t talk or even look at each other. Now, our arguments don’t even last a day
  • It’s important to me that we pray together, although I do most of the praying out loud
  • I know that I can trust you with anything, and you will see anything through
  • You think that I am so smart, and pretend that I am a genius even though you know that I am BS-ing
  • When I got into a car accident in May, you cleaned up my house so that I would have space for my peg leg and crutches to fit. You cooked for me many meals after the accident, got mad when I wanted to work after a week, and became my personal RN
  • You were willing to try new things with me even though they made you uncomfortable (sounds questionable I know, but I am just really talking about badminton and lifting weights …Hahaha!)
  • You are my beachcombing buddy that always wants to go outside with me (oftentimes, the one telling me to get up off my butt)
  • You’ve done my laundry, filed my taxes, lent me money and are my personal unflinching dermatologist (I am so glad you are a nurse)
  • In public, you are fearless to let me know if I’ve got a boogie or if my breath stinks so that I don’t embarrass myself
  • You are good at what you do and I trust you professionally as a colleague
  • You laugh when you want to laugh. You sing when you want to sing. You do it both in your own style, but always with class
  • Although you and I don’t have a lot of money, you are not cheap in our friendship
  • Your heart is gold
  • I am glad that you can eat a meal now without rice, but if the meal does come with rice, I still need you to limit my intake
  • You believe and you are proud of me
  • Your kids and your family love me because you love me
  • Your friends think I am special because I am special to you
  • You’re willing to see foreign films, documentaries, and anything I want to see that’s not so mainstream from the Block (but how far from mainstream can you really get at Blockbuster?)
  • You don’t think I am effeminate when I sing and make actions to Best Days by Matt White
  • You like reading my blog and are critical of the things I write
  • You’ve seen me through three tough breakups and was always there when I needed you, and gave me space when I needed to be alone
  • When my last GF proposed that we get married, you were willing to be my Best (wo)Man and wear a tuxedo
  • You are strong when I am weak (because you know that I am all about the drama, baby)
  • You understand my “idzi nu iptakcho pabo ya”
  • The egotistical married jackasses that always seem to flirt with you have no clue that they are so tiny and so out of your league. Guys, you’re making other guys look bad for being so dumb!
  • You know the most about mi Gabriella
  • You can find anything that I lose in my house (She says that if "that" was detachable, I would lose it too!)
  • You are so beautiful; thank goodness you allowed yourself that backless outfit!
  • I thank God for putting you in my life everyday
    Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera….

This is my best friend, Laurina B. I could list so many more things about her here, but words will never do her justice, nor justice to how lucky I am to have her as a friend.

Here is my bru, Laurina with some of our friends (Jeanette, Grace, and Chi) at the Thursday Night Street Market in Garapan Saipan. Laurina always gets coconut juice while I get the beef barbecue sticks.

Laurina is wearing Pulan yan Tasi (moon and sea), a piece made of hima salape (giant clam money bead) and a square Spondylus pendant. Hima is hard to cut because it is dense and crystalline. It chips and cracks if it gets too hot while cutting, grinding or polishing. The square Spondylus piece is an uncommon color very different from the traditional orange colored Spondylus salape that the ancient Chamorros fashioned. The shell fragment that I fashioned it from polished quite nicely, but it was rough and eroded when I found it. Even though it is pretty solid, it is thin and only a few millimeters in thickness. This square design, I also owe to Laurina and it reminds me of the moon above the sea at night with its reflection in the water and the waves.

In Chamorro legend, the moon came from the god Puntan, who before dying, transferred his extraordinary powers to his sister, Fuuna and requested that his body parts be put to creative use. She created the beautiful island of Guahan using Puntan’s body: his back for the earth, his chest for the sky, his eyebrows as the rainbows, the right eye as the sun, and the left eye as the stars and moon. This legend illustrates the link that the Chamorro people believe they have to the sun, the moon and the stars. Just like the gualafon (full moon) Laurina brightens my life everyday on Saipan.

Thanks for being my friend, and thanks for letting me share once again.

The Beachcomber

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Haguet: fish hook pendants

Saipan Triguy, Lewie T. asked about hooks that the ancient Chamorros used for fishing on a comment on one of my earlier posts. On this post, I'd like to share with you a bit on what I found out for myself regarding this topic as I also wanted to experiment with making fish hook pendants.

Fish hook pendants are very popular nowadays since they look quite masculine, evoking feelings of strength, skill, prosperity and a cultural connection to the vast blue sea. The most popular designs are based on functional and contemporary Polynesian designs, especially from Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The ancient Polynesians did not have metal on their islands so other materials that were hard yet be carve-able were used for their fish hooks or matau. Materials such as shell, wood, human bone, and whale bone and teeth were utilized much like in Micronesia.

Because of their popularity though, there are a lot of low-quality mass produced Polynesian-style carved hooks that you can practically find in any tourist shop or on the internet. Even admiring a decent looking matau in Waikiki’s International Market did not guarantee an “authentic” Polynesian hook as I was told, “No. This one is made in Thailand.” Here are two pictures of a bone Maori-style matau that my good friend Greg M. got while vacationing in Bali. It doesn't look too bad really, and it even has some nicely carved designs on the bottom of it.
I like the stories though that come along in obtaining a unique piece. A lot of people belive that these special pendants contain Mana or spiritual power and the essence of the maker and then the wearer. I am really a big fan of the Polynesian matau designs and will probably make some in the near future. How did the ancient Micronesians design their fish hooks? I asked this question as I explored the idea of making my first hooks based more on ancient Chamorro or Micronesian designs.

Like the Polynesians, the ancient Chamorros also used shells, wood, bone, and teeth to manufacture this very important tool that was relied on for obtaining food from the sea. The Chamorro word for hook is haguet. (Incidentally, haguet is very similar to the Tagalog word for hook, kawit or kalawit, again showing an Austronesian connection in the languages.) The most abundant fishing hook artifact that archeologist have found are made from tree oysters or tooth pearl shells from the family Isognomonidae.

Isognomons are closely related to pearl oysters (Pinctada sp.) and are bivalves that are flat compressed-shelled animals that encrust rocks and mangroves. Their interiors are pearly. Here are a couple of tree oysters that I have found on Saipan:

This is Isognomon ephippium or saddle tree oyster (Linnaeus, 1758) which I found in Luta (Rota, CNMI) in August 2005. It usually grows up to 12 cm wide but this specimen is about half of that. Its exterior is dark and black and the shell is flaky. Inside is beautifully nacreous (pearly) and tinged purple.

These are Isognomon perna (Linnaeus, 1767), also known as false pearl oyster or rayed tree oyster, that I found in Obyan Beach, Saipan. They are nacreous inside and their exteriors are an off-white color usually with broken brown radial stripes.
Here is a picture from the CNMI Museum of History and Culture, Saipan that depicts the process of making a haguet from an Isognomon shell. I really wish I had a better close up picture because you can see that the finished haguet looks very different from the actual sea shell.

The finished haguet is looks crystalline because the shell is ground down to expose the aragonite mineral of the shell. Isognomons produce a bimineralic shell composed of calcium carbonate (outer layer) and aragonite (inside later), a carbonate mineral. It is a hard substance and luminous to look at. Here’s a website with great diagrams of the shell:

Unfortunately, these shells are too difficult to fashion because of their crystaline structure which are too easy to chip and break when they get too hot from cutting or polishing. They are generally small shells as well which isn't ideal for making pendants.
Compound trolling hooks were also produced by the Micronesians. Again, I consulted The Catalogue of Prehistoric Micronesian Artifacts (Intoh) to look at some examples. The following pictures illustrate the shank part of the compound hook that is made out of the black-lipped pearl oyster, Pinctada margaritifera (Linnaeus, 1758). The shank is cut from edge of the shell and away from the hinge. These illustrations are from artifacts found in the Marshall Islands and Pohnpei.

This is a picture of a P. margaritifera valve that I found. It is bigger than the palm of my hands. It has a beautifully nacreous interior. Its natural beauty prevents me from cutting it into different pendants!

Here's an example of how a trolling lure would look complete. These lures are from Yap that can be found at

The shank is supposedly shapped like a small fish and the pearl oyster is used to simulate a shiny silvery fish that bigger predatory fish would eat. The point itself could be composed of shell, haggan (sea turtle) shell, or bone.

This is my first attempt at a stylized compound trolling haguet. As you can see, it is not yet finished but I am using a piece of nigas (Pemphis acidula) found during a beachcombing expedition for the shank and a beef bone point. I inlayed a piece of rectangular Spondylus on the shank and will have to decide on how to bind all the parts together. I decided to use wood and bone because I really do not have (or have anough of) the actual materials that the islanders used according to the examples that I have seen.

This is my first completed stylized compound haguet also made of nigas (Pemphis acidula) and a beef bone point. I read later after I was done making this hook that nigas was a preferred hard wood for making compound hooks on other islands. That was pure luck! Nigas is so hard that it is called ironwood at some of those places.

Here’s a picture of nigas at Coral Ocean Point, Saipan. The common name is small-leafed mangrove, but it is not a true mangrove. Nigas is a coastal tree that you usually see living on jagged coastal rocks. I read that they can grow into medium sized trees at places, but I’ve only seen them in bush form on Saipan. I also read that they are over harvested in many areas because they make good bonsai trees. Driftwood from this tree is usually a rustic gray but when you cut, shape, sand and polish it, it comes out as a rich dark brown colored wood.

Compound hooks are hard to make, but I will spend some more time learning a better way to produce them. Bone hooks need a little more investigating since the material is not as dense and is easy to scratch. I will need to do more research on how to properly make them, and even maybe order a book about bone carving.

Spondylus was not made into hooks by the ancient Chamorros. I wanted to experiment though and see how these would look like or how they would act as I fashioned them into hook shapes. Now, I am not the first person to fashion Spondylus into hooks mind you. I don't think a lot of people attempt it though because a good piece of Spondylus is an uncommon commodity. I've seen some designs that look as if the artisan was afraid to cut it. Mindfully so I say, since I learned that the fear is well placed as I have lost a few good pieces in attempting the twists and turns of a haguet. It is not easy!

This is my first attempt on making a Spondylus hook. I made it very simple out of a very solid fragment which held a beautiful intense orange color. I paired it with a hima salape’ (giant clam money) and a Spondylus salape’ toggle. Hima is very dense and it chips and cracks when heated making it hard to cut and polish. It was my first attempt with the material and the salape’ has tiny cracks that I decided to keep anyway to remind me of the learning process that I go through in this new hobby of mine. It symbolizes struggle and the hardness and skill you gain going through trials.

Here is another design. This has a hima salape' toggle and a Spondylus salape' on the left side of the cord. It is supposed to represent your korason (heart) and your love for the island.
Lastly, this is another stylized Spondylus haguet. The piece that I cut this from didn’t look too promising when I found it, but I am glad that I took the time to grind off layers from it until I carefully got the sheen that I wanted. This is a favorite piece. I paired this haguet with a Conus miles, or soldier cone salape’ bead.

Thank you for letting me share once again.

The Beachcomber.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Spondylus tears

Spondylus fragments that are workable into pendants are very hard to come by. It is difficult to find good sized ones with rich colors. I found two fragments that were pretty much the same shape and bright colors on two different occasions. They weren't too big and if I decided to cut them in to the salape' shape, then they would end up being really really small. When I get stuck, I usually ask my best friend, Laurina B. for advice and a fresh look or take on things. She said, "Why not just put a hole here. I like the way it looks natural." So, I owe her the following lago', or tear-shaped pendants.

I feel as if I cheated on these a bit though because I found them shaped the way they were. I didn't need to polish them and effectively, just poked a hole through and bound them with 100% cotton braiding cord. They turned up nicely though.

Laurina's lago' (of course she gets to keep one) is a gorgeous deep orange red Spondylus fragment. Its color is amazing and I bound it together with a small Spondylus salape' toggle.

As I was working on the other lago' pendant, my friend Bev C. called me saying that she was having a hard day. She was missing her family and life in California and she would have left that instant if she could to rejoin them. Even though I understood where she was coming from, I got a bit sad thinking that I was losing another friend. I take it pretty hard when people leave, I mean it's already hard to find good friends on a small island and when you do, there isn't always that permanence. I am usually pretty bad at corresponding too, so I lose out on them even more after friends have left.

Anyway, it took a lot to clear my mind off of the distractions so again I just focused on who Bev was to me while I finished this piece. Bev, thanks for being there for me. I know that you hear me complain a bit and you see the drama come out at times, but I've got to thank you for being there for me. You never judge me. You've also allowed me to live vicariously on your love life as you pursued a new relationship, while I was still pretty broken hearted and had a general disenchantment for relationships. No matter where you go, I will be there for you. I name this piece after you, Bev's lago' :

Bev's lago' is a bright orange Spondylus, and is naturally tear-shaped that I complimented with a small Spondylus salape' and a small sling stone shaped toggle.

I enjoyed "making" the lago' pendants and like Laurina said, I like the natural look on both of them. As always though, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I asked my friend Yerma R. what she thought of the design and she said, "It kind of looks like a dried piece of salmon. I mean, for people who might not know what it is." "Hahahaha!", I laughed so hard I almost had a tear.

Thank you for allowing me to share once again.

The Beachcomber