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Corel Chemistry

The Story of the Coral  By Roy DeNunzio

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.

Coral is 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 wampum-style beads.

The Colors of Coral

 Coral, or 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 Provence, as well as along parts of the French and the Spanish seaboard.

Precious, or Noble Coral: A type of red coral called Corallium 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 Allopora 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 texture.

Corals From Start to Finish

Before 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 as coral.

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.  

The Critical Coral Reef

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 japonicum.

Coral Through the Years

Coral 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 of 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.

Fun Facts About the Coral

Coral was 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!)

 Coral was also thought to preserve against lightening and terrible tornadoes. Its power supposedly increased when exposed to the full moon

According 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.

The Romans 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.

During the Medieval period coral was used as a cure for sterility and as charm against the evil eye.

Italian men presented coral jewelry to their beloved as a token of love and fidelity to signify that they were engaged.

A Native American husband in the Southwest presented red coral jewelry to his wife so that she might bear him many children.

Important Note The information on this website is for educational purposes only. It should not be considered as a substitute for consultation with a licensed healthcare professional or as a replacement for any medical treatment.
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