It is pulled from the ocean depths and hits the surface
looking like a mutant from a monster movie. Gnarled, covered
with organic parasites and debris, it is not even remotely
beautiful. But cleaned, cut, carved and polished, coral becomes
an object d'art of rare and costly
beauty, as prized today as it was 10,000 years ago.
discovered in still, clear water between 25 and 1000 feet deep.
The intensity and quality of coral color increases with depth,
but coral is very sensitive and can breed only in water
temperatures between 13 and 16 degrees Celsius. These ideal
conditions are met in only several places: The best coral is
found in the waters of southern Ireland, the Bay of Biscay to
Madeira, in the Canaries and the Cape de Verde Islands, in the
Mediterranean, the Red Sea, Mauritius, the Malay Archipelago,
and in Japanese waters.
Italy is considered the center of coral jewelry creation, and
Torre del Greco,
near Naples, is where the best coral jewelry in Italy is made.
Larger pieces are often fashioned into stunning umbrella handles
or walking sticks, while smaller pieces are made into round or
egg-shaped beads that are used in necklaces, rosaries and
bracelets. Coral is also the classic material for carved cameos
but also makes beautiful earrings, brooches, pendants, rings,
cuff links, tie bars, belt buckles, inlaid jewelry boxes and
pillboxes. A great deal of coral is exported to India and China,
where it is used in religious rituals.
In America, the native Navajo and the Zuni silversmiths have
been the heaviest users of coral jewelry. The Zunis combined it
with black jet, though it also contrasts magnificently with
turquoise. The San Domingo Indians also worked coral into
Corallo, as the Italians call it,
comes in many variations. These are
considered the best for fine jewelry:
Red Coral: Classic and expensive, this is the most valued
coral of all, favored worldwide for its hardness, beauty, and
sanguine hue. Red Coral is brought up from the sandy bottom of
the Mediterranean, and the Gulf of Naples near Genoa. It is also
found off Algiers and Tunis on the African side, in the waters
of Sardinia, Corsica, Catalonia and
as well as along parts of the French and the Spanish seaboard.
Precious, or Noble Coral: A type of red coral called
Rubrum, or Corallium
Nobile, Precious coral can be found
in the Mediterranean, Sardinia and Sicily, as well as in Tunis,
Algeria and Morocco.
Black Coral: This coral is a horny substance particularly
good for carving and molding – it actually bends when it is
warmed! The black hue is believed to be coral in the first stage
of decay, since the color only persists a little below the
surface. Once abundant in the Persian Gulf, a similar type is
found in the Mediterranean.
Blue Coral: As with Black Coral, this variety is thought
to be coral in the first stage of decomposition, since the color
usually extends only just below the surface. It is known both as
Subviolacea and Akori. This
unusual variety has been found off of Cameroon.
Golden coral: Divers off Maui, in Hawaii, have brought up
this pretty variety of coral, which has a resinous or lacquered
coral can be “fished”, or harvested, it must grow. First, a
gelatinous marine animal deposits calcium carbonate around its
body, creating a polyp made of fibrous calcite crystals. These
polyps radiate out at 90 degrees, creating branch-like shapes
that are built up in the form of hollow tubes fitted on into the
other, making a sort of axial skeleton reminiscent of the
internal skeleton of any living being. But they are even more
reminiscent of scaffolding, upon which the boneless coral polyps
proliferate, grow, and thrive as a colony, creating what we see
When fully grown, coral resembles an irregular, dwarf tree
covered with barnacles, lime, and salt. 10 inches high -- with
an 8 inch spread -- is considered a large find. "Fishing" for
coral is really a misnomer: Italians, the leading harvesters in
the industry, actually dredge the sea bottom using a specially
designed net called an ingegno, a
web of ropes attached to a weighted wood cross or beam that is
dragged along the
ocean floor by a fairly large sailing vessel. This tears up the
coral and brings it to the surface. Large boats of 12 to 14 tons
require a crew of 10 to 12 men. Most coral "fishing" is done in
summer, in order to avoid the dangers of winter storms on the
waters. Once the harvest is
complete, coral is cleaned using a solution of 50% hydrochloric
acid and water. It is also cleaned and tumbled with sharp sand.
From there it is cut, ground, sanded and polished.
It is the
labor and high cost of turning this rough material into
polished jewelry that makes coral
pieces so expensive. Italian craftsmen are extraordinarily
particular about the coral they use -- it must be free of
fractures and blemishes. And transforming raw coral into fine
jewelry is a painstakingly delicate process. It involves
intricate sawing and proper heating to prevent cracks and
discoloration. But the beautiful final results are well worth
the time and effort. Though they
cover less than 0.2% of the ocean floor,
coral reefs are home to approximately 25% of the ocean's
species. Do the math and that comes to roughly 5000 species of
reef fish scattered among 2,500 species of coral! But
unfortunately two-thirds of the world's reefs are perishing: 10%
are degraded past recovery, while 30% are in critical condition
and may die within ten to twenty years. This is unfortunate,
because the corals protect the shorelines, make wonderful fish
nurseries, and give food, shelter and protection to almost a
million marine species. Fortunately, fishing for coral doesn't
affect coral reefs. The species of coral that creates coral
reefs is not the same species as the coral we wear in jewelry:
the species that creates reefs in the South Pacific and
Australia is corallium
beads and artifacts were found in the graves of pre-dynastic
Egypt, from as far back as 4000 B.C., as well as in graves from
the Iron Age, and in Neolithic sepulchers dating back to 10,000
B.C. Throughout the world, museums have coral collections of
amulets and ornaments going as far back as 1000 B.C.
In India, coral was as highly valued as the pearl was in Rome.
The Persians particularly admired its color. The Chinese and the
Hindus ornamented the figures of their gods with it, while in
Tibet coral's red color was believed to be symbolic of one of
the incarnations of Buddha. It was used as a personal ornament
combined with turquoise and amber, and used to decorate temples.
Its use was so prevalent that even Marco Polo remarked upon it
in the 13th century. In Africa, coral was worshipped, and
considered the most priceless gift a ruler could bestow. If a
string of coral were lost or stolen, all those involved were
summarily killed! The Gauls used it
to ornament their helmets and weapons of
war, and during the Christian era coral was believed
war, and during the Christian era
coral was believed to possess sacred qualities, leading to a
lively trade between the Mediterranean and India.
Red was the favorite coral color of the Pueblo Indians of New
Mexico and Arizona, as well as the Zuni and Hopi peoples. They
retrieved it in the variously colored fragments of the spiny
oyster shells taken from the Gulf of Mexico.
Over the centuries, the world has continued to delight in coral.
Both the Renaissance and the Victorian periods incorporated it
into their fine jewelry. President Lincoln and many prominent
Americans were extremely fond of it. In Europe, great rivalries
even sprang up around coral: From Medieval times to the present,
Europe and the Mediterranean have vied for the control of coral
fishing rights along the African coasts. Today the main coral
trade is in Italy, located mainly around Naples, Rome and Genoa
thought to quiet the waves and made the sea calm. (Considering
the fact that coral reefs protect the shoreline, that idea
wasn't completely wrong!)
also thought to preserve against lightening and terrible
tornadoes. Its power supposedly increased when exposed to the
to ancient lore, Perseus placed the
severed head of Medusa in its bag on a heap of seaweed. The
head's power passed into the seaweed, which turned as rigid and
as shriveled as stone. The Sea Nymphs were delighted. They took
armfuls of it back under the sea with them and brought fresh
seaweed up to be turned to stone by the head of Medusa. Hence,
we have coral.
believed coral to be a potent charm, and hung branches of coral
around the necks of their children to preserve them from harm.
They also pulverized it and mixed it with wine, as a cure-all
tonic to be imbibed after their infamous debauches.
Medieval period coral was used as a cure for sterility and as
charm against the evil eye.
men presented coral jewelry to their beloved as a token of love
and fidelity to signify that they were engaged.
American husband in the Southwest presented red coral jewelry to
his wife so that she might bear him many children.