There are many different kinds of shells and conchs. If you go to a place where our ancestors caught shellfish to eat you will find quite a variety of them in piles that were discarded. There are several types of discarded shells they used for different items. The most common shell used by our ancestors was the lightning whelk (See Figure One). It was cut and every part utilized in making items for wearing and drinking from. The very inside of the conch was cut into beads (See Figure Sixteen) as well as a small drinker called a columella (See Figures Three And Four). The lightning welk was cut so that it gave the person several circular shells to engrave on (See Figure Two). They became known shell gorgets as they were worn suspended from the neck. They also cut them for large drinker vessels.
In this lesson we will describe how to make one of these Mississippian shell gorgets. We saved a few shell gorgets 'rough cut for engraving and a couple saved to make the large drinkers out of. Some people have turned to mother of pearl to make the gorgets (See Figure Fifteen). Another shell used is the fresh water muscle. Both of these shells are very colorful and make nice gorgets, but is not what our ancestors used. These types of shells are soft compared to the lightning whelks. The shell gorgets made from the lightning whelks have lasted hundreds of years and the fact that they are extremely hard would probably have something to do with it (See Figures Eight and Ten). No matter what shell you use you need to, in most cases, cut the gorget round so a design, like the original ones, would fit.
In Figure Two, it shows how to lay the large whelk down and mark the largest gorget that can fit, and then cut. I suggest the shell should be no smaller than 14 inches or else you can only get one gorget out of it. Do not use shells too small you will only get one out of the shell and it will be very curved almost impossible to work with. The black line is about the size of the gorget, while the blue line is where the actual cut is made. Once the first gorget is cut out continue marking and cutting around the shell until you have all the gorgets that can be cut out of the one shell. Next decide if you are going to cut a columella or not and if so cut it out. This is all you can get out of one shell. Now we take the rough cut circles and make them good and round (See Figure Five).
The next thing to do is to drill the holes in the shell. This is done now because if they are going to break you want them to break now and not after you work hard sanding on them. There are a couple of methods you can use to drill the shells. The first and sure way is to drill them underwater. What you can do is to take a shallow plastic bowl and put water into it. Then use a diamond bit in the Dremel as your left hand holds the shell just under the water in the bowl, your right hand drills it slowly. Having an arm extension on the Dremel is a good way to avoid electric shock. The second method is to get a good carbide drill set and choose the size you want and drill it, stopping occasionally to dip the shell and end of the bit in water to cool them. Then drill more. Repeat these steps until the hole has been drilled. You can drill it with no water but drill it very slow. As stated, the lightning whelk is very hard and does create quite a lot of heat when drilled. After the holes are cut you are ready to sand the gorget down and get it real smooth. Again you will work with a course type of sandpaper then move to one not so course then follow up with a real fine paper. If you look at Figures Six and Seven you will notice that even the backs of the shells are sanded. There are times that we do put designs on both sides of the shells (See Figures Seventeen and Eighteen). The design in Figure Seventeen was primarily put on the back of the shells. If you have chosen a design that needs the holes drilled a certain way on the design then you will have to sand it first and then draw the design and then drill the holes (See Figures Eleven, Twelve and Fifteen).
With the shell sanded it is time to polish it. White jewelers rouge is used to polish them. This gives the shell a great shine (See Figure Seven). Now it is time to choose the design you want to put on the shell. We try to make the shells as close to the original design as possible (See Figures Eight and Nine). The shell in Figure Nine is not exactly the same size as the original in Figure Eight, so the design is not exactly like the original. We like to use photographs of the original and not to work off of one that was drawn by someone else. In doing this you can make sure each detail is included in the design on the shell you are engraving. Once you have chosen the design, take a good pencil and draw it the way you want it to look. When engraving most designs we use a 105 Dremel bit but we take the grey sharping stone and slide the bit back and forth until the tiny ball on the end falls off and it is real sharp like a needle. This makes the best engraver and gives the best detail on many things where you need real fine line engraving (See Figures Fourteen and Eighteen). The feathers on both of those were done with a 105 Dremel bit. Follow the pencil lines of the design slowly. You may need to put the tip of the bit in water to cool it from time to time. After you have finished engraving the design on the shell you are ready to add the 'black' color.
Take some India ink and a cloth and put it all over the design so the ink gets into every mark you engraved on the shell. Next, take a dry cloth and wipe off some of the access making sure you don’t remove any ink from the design. After this has been done and the ink is dry take the black jewelers rouge and a buffing wheel which is for black items and buff the shell real good. Next take a dirty buffing wheel and buff again. This time none of the ink and rouge should come off. Take white rouge and put some on the wheel and buff real good until all the excess black is off the edges of the shell. If you have done this correctly you can now swap the wheel and use straight white rouge to put the final shine on. Do not use too much white or it will dull the black. We have used this method for years and have found the ink and the rouge stay in the design engraving marks even under very hot water. We used one of the engraved drinkers for our dipper in the sweat lodge for a year and it did not lose the black color in the design. If you prefer a brownish color on the shell you can get just about any color of ink you need. If you can't find any, a good shoe polish works well, or even wood stain.
Designs which are to be cut all the way through the shell, as in Figures Eleven and Twelve, take a while to cut. Each 'hole' has to be cut with care so it does not crack the shell due to excess heat created. In each design the part that is cut through the design starts with a round hole. Then it is elongated, with a diamond bit, as the design requires. Just take your time and remember cutting all the way through the shell creates much heat and you have to cut slowly! Once you are done it does look real nice to have the design cut so there are places where it is cut all the way through.
Once you are used to engraving on shell gorgets you can move on to engraving many different parts to the shells. Figures Three and Four show engravings done on columellas and one small drinker. The process is the same as doing a shell gorget just it is on a more rounded surface. We hope this helps you in making shell gorgets. Just take your time and remember the first one you make may not look exactly as the ones here so keep on working. The more gorgets you make the better you will get.
Inside the site there are many other lessons on how to make items. We hope you have enjoyed these and can use them in pursuit of your pre-Columbian style native crafts.
Shown is a burial from Cahokia Mound 72 of a high official. He was buried with over 20,000 shell beads made from welks from the Gulf Coast. Other items also included were many projectile points (arrowheads) stacked together. The shell beads were arranged to form the design of a Falcon.
The lines and dots on the left side of the gorget are my coding system. The design is a warrior of the Maya engaging in a ceremony.