From deep intense reds to powder pink and white, the striking colours and intricate shape of its skeleton make coral one of nature’s marvels. The distinctiveness of coral lies in the extraordinary formation of the numerous irregularly shaped branches, often said to evoke the outline of a human body with its arms extended towards the sky. Coral grows slowly, hidden away in the depths of the sea, sheltered from currents and warm sunlight, and is then sculpted and treasured as a precious jewel or a protective amulet.
What is coral?
Coral is a living organism, made up of a hard calcareous skeleton which houses minute white polyps. Thanks to the polyps’ poisonous tentacles coral is able to feed itself plankton and other miniscule organic substances found in its surroundings. A myriad of these polyps, which are genetically identical, create a coral “head”. The uniqueness of coral lies in its beautifully coloured skeleton, often reaching 20 to 30 cm in length, and which render each piece of coral unique and exceptional.
According to some etymologists the name ‘coral’ derives from the Greek koraillon (hard skeleton), indicating the characteristic toughness of the organism’s skeleton. While according to a second, and perhaps more poetic, interpretation, the name comes from the Greek kura-halos (human form), as the typical formations of coral heads can be compared to a human body with its arms reaching upwards.
Characteristics of coral
It is a truly unique gem with its warmth and mesmerising red tones. It is not of mineral, inanimate provenance, but rather originates from a living organism. It may take decades for a coral’s skeleton to reach the desired dimensions for carving and crafting; because each coral head is special and singular, the sculpted pieces driving from it are truly exceptional.
Types of coral
Various typologies of coral exist, which vary according to colour, thickness and the geographical location in which a given coral grows. The most valuable and desirable red coral is Mediterranean Coral (Corallium Rubrum), world famous due to the intensity of its colours and its size. It can be found across the Mediterranean basin, along the coasts of Italy, Greece, Spain, France and also along the more southern coasts of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. The Sciacca variety, found on the coast of Sicily, can be singled out for its mesmerising shades of orange.
The varieties originating from eastern coastlines, and especially around Japan, are incredibly rich in their diversity and their colours span from various shades of pink to white. For instance the Misu variety, found along Japan and the Philippines, is typically a pale pink or white, while the Bokè, also from Japan, is a stronger and more intense shade of pink. Along the same coastlines, Satsuma coral is bright red and is particularly suitable to incisions, while the Aka is vitreous and uneven, which makes it difficult to sculpt, but if expertly chiseled it can produce some of the most exclusive pieces. As its name aptly suggests, the Deep Sea coral of Hawaii grows at abyssal depths of 1000 metres or more, and comes in all shades of red and pink. Finally, Midway coral, from the Pacific atoll of the same name, is white or pink and is characterized by faint red veining.
The coral industry in Italy
Mesmerising jewellery is created by sculpting coral’s calcareous skeleton. This is cleaned, smoothed and polished, then often inset in gold or silver mounts.
Some of the richest coral reefs in Italy are found along the northwest coast of Sardinia, more precisely near Alghero, which is also known as the Coral Riviera. To this day, crafting of the splendid material is one of the most important and prestigious industries of the city.
Torre del Greco, near Naples, is of notable importance for its history of artistic craftsmanship. First workshops in the area for the production of coral jewellery date back to the fifteenth century AD, and in the 1800s the Scuola per la lavorazione del corallo was founded. The school is still active today and boasts over 2000 technicians, making it the most influential centre for the processing of coral in the world.
Once a living organism, each skeleton of this natural gem is unique and exceptional. Coral is characterised by imperfections which are often inscrutable to the naked eye. A more attentive observation will often reveal minute stains and striping. Furthermore, careful scrutiny of the bottom of the cabochon will show tiny concentric circles, just like in tree trunks, which are testimony of the growth and age of the coral.
Where can coral be found?
Coral skeletons suitable to sculpting or to be used in jewellery can be found across the whole of the Mediterranean basin, from Greece all the way to Tunisia. Numerous colonies can also be found in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, along the Portuguese and Moroccan coastlines. A number of varieties of coral can be found around Japan and in the waters of Pacific atolls such as Hawaii, Midway and the Philippines. Here they can be found between 20 to 200 meters underwater, shying away from light in caves, crevices and clefts.
Properties of coral
Since ancient times, coral has been used to craft propitiatory amulets. These were mostly for pregnant women and newborns as coral was considered a powerful talisman against evil spells and any sort of enchantment. According to popular beliefs the sharp branches could pierce through evil spells cast with envy.
Therapeutic virtues were also often associated to coral, as it was believed that carrying a coral talisman close to oneself would fend off negativity while attracting courage and wisdom. In some cases, if for example placed under a pillow, it could also convey serenity.
For millennia it was used to create amulets to protect children. If given to a newborn as a gift it was believed to guarantee them a healthy future. Furthermore, if worn around the neck as a necklace or pendant or if placed in a child’s bedroom it was thought to alleviate teething pain and ward off negativity.
Ancient texts tell us coral was used in Egypt and Greece to invoke prosperity. Pieces of coral were crushed into powder and mixed with seeds or scattered onto sown fields in the hope that this would protect the crop. Often, coral was also hung from fruit trees to increase their fruit production.
Coral corresponds to the base chakra (root chakra), which stands for mental and emotional balance and the ability to dominate one’s instincts.
Its element is Water, which is associated to the spheres of emotions and femininity.
According to crystal healing therapy, coral helps alleviate anxiety and shyness, while strengthening group identity. Also, it rebalances inner energies destabilised by negative moods; while at a physical level it helps strengthen bones and release stiff joints.
Generally, all coral purifies and strengthens, but each type of coral bears more specific properties according to its colour. White coral for example heals the heart and can be used as an antidepressant; pink coral can be used to support a weak liver; while red coral, the skeleton of which can be said to look like a sketch of the human circulatory system, is used to encourage healthy blood flow and lymphatic drainage (it is particularly recommended to those who suffer from anemia).
Coral in history
Roughly rounded coral beads dating back to the Palaeolithic Era (around 35,000 BC to 10,000 BC) are the oldest testimonies of man making use of coral. The oldest artefact ever retrieved is a small carved idol, found near Chieti in a sepulchre dating back to the Neolithic Period. More sophisticated sculpting techniques were developed in 3000 BC by the Sumerians, Egyptians and Phoenicians, who created refined ornaments utilising coral as well as other precious materials.
Celts used coral from around 2000 BC; we have several testimonies of it being principally used to decorate metal objects. It was however the Romans who conveyed to coral a higher value in its own right. They often used it as a sole decorative element on necklaces, attributing to it the power to avert the evil eye.
Coral and mythology
Greek mythology - As quoted by Ovid in his Methamorphoses, in classic mythology red coral was formed of Medusa’s blood. The myth goes that Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters who could turn into stone anyone who gazed directly into their eyes, was beheaded by Peruses. He killed her while looking at her monstrous head reflected on his metal shield. Medusa’s blood poured into the foam of the waves petrifying seaweed and dying it red. The seaweed thus became coral and acquired magical powers.
Mediterranean legend - Across the Mediterranean it was believed that, similarly to amber, coral bore “the essence of life”. It is said that it was a Goddess who lived amongst coral at the bottom of the ocean who hid such essence within the coral’s skeleton.
Hindu mythology - According to an old Hindu legend, as the ocean was considered to be the guardian of the souls of the dead, coral was believed to be a powerful talisman for long life. It often used to be placed on the bodies of the deceased to prevent these from being taken over by evil spirits.