When I was doing my research for ‘Hey, Pinkie!’ I came across this pot of coral beads the palest of which caught my eye – as I was thinking pink – and Polly told me it’s called ‘angel skin’. How lovely is that! She also suggested that coral would be a good subject for an article and of course she’s right – it’s a fascinating subject.
Coral, like turquoise, is one of the most ancient ‘gems’ and has been used for millennia, especially corallium rubrum, the well known red coral. The ancient Egyptians were partial to it as we already know, as were the Greeks and Romans, and in fact the scientific name for black coral – antipatharia – means ‘against disease’, which is really one of the reasons coral was so important in the ancient cultures. It was considered to be full of medicinal properties and worn to not only ward off disease but to protect children, in particular, from evil, so children from wealthy Roman families often wore coral necklaces from a very early age, lucky little things.
On the other side of the world the native Americans used coral in their adornment, and inland cultures far from the sources of coral would obtain it through trade. One of the most active trade routes was between the Mediaterranean and India where, once again, coral was believed to be full of medicinal and sacred properties. Apparently the Gauls used coral as decoration in their weapons and helmets, but the demand from India was so great that it was rarely seen in the areas that actually produced it. In more modern times it was the Victorians who really loved coral, and some of the pieces of jewellery they produced were astonishing, like this bracelet which belongs to Polly. As an aside they also favoured coral teething ring rattles too – coral was good for everything it seems!
But the greatest players in the history of coral are the Italians. Red coral is found mostly in the Mediterranean; around Sardinia, the Straits of Gibralter and historically off the coast of Naples, and it was a region of Naples, Torre del Greco, that flourished as the heart of the coral trade. It was fished near by, processed in Torre del Greco and in fact the whole trade was run by the Torre del Greco fishermen, the sort of Coral Mafia if you will. Even today the life blood of Torre del Greco is the coral trade. But the ‘corallini’ as the natives of Torre Del Greco are sometimes called, were not the only ones fighting for the rights to their patch of coral. As far back as the middle ages securing the rights to the coral fishing off the African coast was heavily fought over by the Mediterranean countries of Europe.
And on the subject of the source of coral, I have to relate a very funny story about this. When we were in Marrakech we found ourselves caught in a four-storey retail tourist trap, being guided and guarded and persuaded by a man now affectionately known as The Grand Vizier; you know the man I mean… slick hair, pencil thin moustache, lizard eyes, pointy leather slippers… and while he was trying to persuade Poll to buy some completely inappropriate (but lovely) furniture, I wandered into the jewellery section which consisted of scores of cases both around and on the wall, displaying silver jewellery with coral and turquoise, mostly. I asked the very nice young man where the coral had come from – thinking Mediterranean or maybe red sea – but his English wasn’t good enough for him to understand so he indicated I should stay were I was and he’d fetch The Boss. Enter the Grand Vizier.
“Where is this coral from?’ I ask.
“That is from the High Atlas mountains.”
What?! Thinking he might have thought I was pointing to the turquoise instead of the coral I tried again.
“Er, no… where is this CORAL from?’
“Yes, Coral – from the Hight Atlas Mountains” Sneer, rub hands…
Well, what can you say when you’re faced with that sort of knowledge and those lizardy eyes?
He did bring us a glass of wonderful mint tea though, so it wasn’t all bad!
But I digress. There are two types of coral, hard and soft, which translates into red and black, basically, each with hundreds of subspecies, too many to name and discuss! Red coral, the most popular for making jewellery, has a hard calcerous skeleton and gets its colour from the algae that live on it in a wonderfully symbiotic relationship; it gets food for the coral and the coral gives it somewhere to live. It grows in both shallow bright waters and in deeper water in most of the oceans in the world, and it’s best loved feature is that it polishes to the most wonderful shine. It also comes in a wide range of colour, from angel skin to ox blood and everything in between. The darker the more valuable seems to be the buyers guide.
Black coral is a deeper growing coral and is associated more with Hawaii, China and Indonesia. The skeleton of this coral is soft and flowy and it grows feathery branches a bit like ferns, and it’s the stem of the coral that is dark, ranging from black to nearly white, but its ‘leaves’ can be all sorts of bright colours. It’s more the growth habit that defines it as black coral than the actual colour.
It’s hard to determine exactly what the status of either of these corals really is; the fishing of coral is mostly very rigidly controlled but as with everything in demand, there are poachers aplenty. Climate change and pollution have also had a devestating effect on the coral beds, of that there’s no doubt, but conservation of coral has been in place for many years, and the only permissable way to fish coral today is by scuba diving – no more dragging nets across the ocean floor. Some reports say that it has become well managed and sustainable and others say it’s still in grave danger. For this reason we buy our coral at auctions or in antique shops which seems to be the most sustainable way of doing it without contributing to coral’s already pressured existence.
A little known factoid… the city of Oxford is partly built on the remains of a coral reef that flourished 155 million years ago, and there is evidence of this coral being used in buildings all over the city, one of the best examples being the Saxon tower of St. Michael of the Northgate. Who knew!
And for this magpie, well… angel skin or ox blood, I just love a bit of coral, me!