Red coral: the gold of Mediterranean Sea

Red Coral: Is it a mineral or a vegetable? Scholars do not agree on this subject.

The value attributed to coral was related to the symbolic and magical strength unleashed by its extraordinary and contradictory nature. This purple gem has been linked to vital energy, prosperity, health universal equilibrium. Myth legitimates such absolute powers. Through the centuries, it has been used as money, an ornament, a talisman, and even as a medicine. Today it used in the production of jewelry.

Red coral comes from the Mediterranean Sea. It is so precious that it has been compared to red gold. Now we are going to discover:

  • what it really is
  • where it can be found and how much
  • how it was used in ancient times
  • the methods used to collect it
  • how it has been worked in the past and how it is worked today


Red Coral - what is it?

In ancient times it was called Corallium rubrum. It is the skeletal remains of an organism in the animal kingdom. The branches, reaching a length of some 10 to 12 inches [25-30 cm], are solid calcareous deposits. It is the result of secretions by whole colonies of organisms, delivered to protect themselves. Even if each branch is of uniform coloration, several different shades of red can be clearly identified. They can grow on any solid surface like a rock or a shipwreck. The ideal conditions in order to make them grow are:

  • a depth of 800 feet [250 m]
  • calm and unpolluted waters
  • relatively high salinity
  • water temperature between 50 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit [10 and 29° C]

Where it can be found and how much

It is found in the Mediterranean sea waters of Algeria, Albania, France, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia, Yugoslavia, and in the Atlantic waters of Cape Verde and Morocco.

It has been estimated the growth rates for young colonies in:

  • from five sixteenths to two sixteenths of an inch (4-8 mm) per year in length;
  • one sixteenth of an inch (1.5 mm) per year in diameter.

You can guess that if is quite a long process taking several years to get a good coral

Ancient Times

Archaeology has shown shows that the red coral has been prized, worked, and traded from a long period of time.

It was included among the jewels of a Sumerian deity. Even Egyptians valued it highly. In ancient times Jews set coral alongside silver and choice gold for value.

Initially the population collected just red coral fragments. They were mainly used as amulets. Operations were limited to cutting of twigs, polishing and rounding. Before the XV century only “paternoster” beads were produced to be inserted either in Christian and Muslim rosaries or in jewelry. From 1500, and for two more centuries, the towns of Trapani and Genoa became centers of artistic coral carving. The Celts attributed great worth to it. In fact they decorated their arms and horses’ bridles with it.

The roman naturalist Pliny reports that in the first century red coral was gathered in the Gulf of Lions and around Sicily. Back then, the coral was considered a remedy for eye complaints, fever and kidney stones, and . It was believed it could protect its owners from typhoons and lightning.

In the tenth century North African Arabs invented a device for gathering coral. With this system the ranches of coral were broken, been entangled in the nets, and finally brought to the surface.

Variations of this gear and method were used up until just a few years ago. Fortunately the fears that they were damaging the seabed and marine fauna led the lical authorities to ban this method in favour of divers. Divers, when acting according the the local laws, are more selective and less destructive.


Competitor defeated

In the last two decades of the XIX century, two major events gave a great influence on the italian activities related to coral:

  • in Sciacca large deposits of decayed material were found
  • in Japan begun a coral exploitation

Thanks to their ability and taking advantage of the great amounts in the Sciacca deposit,Naples and Torre del Greco won the supremacy in carving and, they began a new production: from the celebrated “leaves and fruits” parures in “Sciacca pink” to drop earrings, pins or hair combs, brooches, tie-pins and watch fobs for men.

Italian craftsmen

From ancient times roman craftsmen produced all sorts of amulets, beads for necklaces, sculptures representing mythological characters.

The 12th century saw the birth of a flourishing export trade in beads, buttons, and other objects. These desired items were shipped to Constantinople and various Mediterranean ports.

In the 13th century (Marco Polo’s time), Mediterranean coral was in demand in India and Indochina. We know Arab merchants took it as far as China.

Especially Trapani, Naples and Genoa, produced huge quantities of smooth-surfaced ornaments. During the so-called mannerism and baroque (period going from the 16th to the 18th century) were the products coming from Trapani. Small coral shapes embellished all manner of objects: jewel boxes, trays, picture frames and mirrors. During the 19th century the array of personal ornaments in all styles dramatically increased: jewelry sets, earrings, pendants, necklaces, brooches and bracelets carved into flowers, leaves, animals, etc.

On the bay of Naples you find Torre del Greco. Here artisans are specializes in the processing of red coral. Actually, the town processes an estimated 90 percent of all red coral collected worldwide. They use circular saws to cut coral branches into segments. Others machines machine are specifically adapted to produce spherical beads. Others are crafted and worked to obtain specific shapes and sizes. They are then polished, mounted in settings for rings, earrings, and similar items. The production process generates a lot of discarded material, on average half to three quarters of the raw material. This is one of the reasons that finished coral jewelry costs more per gram than gold jewelry.

Sad to say, this fascinating sector has attracted individuals moved by the desire for quick and easy profits, determined to exploit banks of coral to the point of destruction.

May humans learn to respect our planet and all its creatures, enjoying all the beauty and preserving them as a gift to their offspring.


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