Italians have pulled coral and seashells from the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Seas since ancient times, using the ocean’s bounty to make some of Italy’s most beautiful adornments. The shoreline of Campania is famous for cameos and the distinctive red coral that Italian jewelers often pair with gold, pearls, and other precious materials. Alongside environmental concerns over delicate coral and reef reserves as well as initiatives to protect them, the making of jewelry and other objects from coral remains a vibrant industry in the Naples region.
The history of coral ornaments and cameos stretches back to antiquity, when relief and engraved carvings on precious and semiprecious stones, shells, corals, and glass were widely admired. In Renaissance Italy, the interest in reviving antiquity brought carved corals back into vogue. Inventories, dowry lists, and other historical records of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tell the story of the increasing popularity of these prized objects offered as gifts, amassed in the private collections of Neapolitan aristocrats. Treasuries belonging to monasteries, convents, and other religious institutions in the Naples region counted carved corals and shells among their most prized possessions.
By 1600, fleets of coral boats called coralline sailed daily from Naples and the port of Torre del Greco to satisfy this demand for carved cameos and corals. The industry grew significant enough that coral fishermen organized themselves into a trade association and people began calling the residents of Torre del Greco themselves corallini. The boats pulled specially designed nets tacked to a wooden cross-shaped frame and dragged along the ocean bottom to gather corals and sponges. The boats were also accompanied by a few brave souls who dove in and held their breath long enough to select specimens by hand.
In 1805, a royal ornament-making enterprise called the Real Fabbrica di Coralli was established at Torre del Greco. King Ferdinand IV granted a license to Paul Barthèlemy Martin, a successful coral broker from Marseille on the coast of France, to run the establishment. Martin had the privilege of operating a ten-year coral-working monopoly, with the exclusive right to sell the factory’s production within the kingdom as well as to export it. In exchange, Martin agreed to train local craftspeople to work coral. From the beginning, the factory turned out jewelry as well as small sculptures and other art objects.
By the 1830s, some 1,800 coralline sailed from Neapolitan ports, dredging coral in the service of the Kingdom of Naples. Over the course of the nineteenth century, private coral and cameo businesses set up shop in Torre del Greco. By the twentieth century, haute jewelers around the world sought out local artisans to create signature pieces for their fashion lines. Valentino even designed a famous sandal made from coral beads wrought in Torre del Greco.
Is that legal?
In the Mediterranean Sea, the most desirable red coral, Corallum rubrum, grows between ten and three hundred meters below the surface. It does not make up part of a reef system, but rather grows in clusters along the seabed. When harvested, the shrub-like organism is composed of reddish skeletal branches covered with whitish polyps. As it dries, coral, which is composed mostly of calcium carbonate, retains its bright color and durability. Fishing for coral with nets was banned in 1994, and today only scuba divers are allowed to gather coral. While Mediterranean species are still utilized in Italian jewelry production today, increasingly Italians import Pacific red and pink species from Asia, where colonies of Corallum rubrum and other specimens are more plentiful.
Currently, red coral or Corallum rubrum is not considered an endangered species in spite of the organisms’ slow growth rate and over-harvesting in the Mediterranean. The centuries-old practice of pulling red coral from the sea, however, means that those colonies growing at the shallower depths of the Mediterranean have been largely depleted. Scientists have raised concerns about the future of Corallum rubrum because of over-extraction as well as the increasing acidification of the Mediterranean Sea in recent decades. Scientists, government bodies, and the business community are actively pursuing models of sustainable fishing for coral populations in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Even so, it’s important to realize that worldwide, the coral population is much smaller than it was in centuries past.
Within the jewelry industry, the extraction and use of coral remains controversial. In 2002, the famous jewelry company Tiffany stopped selling coral because of environmental concerns, and many others have followed suit. For the companies in Torre del Greco, the situation is complex. Many of the town’s artisanal family enterprises stretch back generations, and discontinuing the use of coral would be a challenging economic prospect. Coral is also deeply tied to the community’s sense of self-identity, so much so that as recently as 2010 the Italian post office issued a Made in Italy stamp featuring the coral of Torre del Greco. No matter one’s stance on coral, there is no denying that this red organism defines Torre del Greco, socially, culturally, and economically. Today, the industry employs several thousand people and works with environmental groups to maintain sustainable practices as conscious stewards of this historical trade.
Buying Coral Jewelry
Jewelers have long valued coral for its beautiful color; its relative softness, which means that it can be elaborately carved; and its lustrous finish when polished. After harvesting, coral is washed and left to dry, then is sorted by color, shape, and size. The coral is cut, smoothed, and polished, then often shaped into round or oval beads, or large cabochons to be used in brooches, necklaces, and rings. Sometimes you see coral branches left in their natural form, and strung together on necklaces or used as other decoration.
Today, the port town of Torre del Greco remains the epicenter of Italian cameo production and coral jewelry making. Many of the larger producers in Torre del Greco cater to the trade only, as a thriving export business sends many of these pieces to Asia, Australia, North America, and elsewhere. Many traditional coral and cameo makers in Torre del Greco remain family affairs, some tracing their craft back generations. Parents pass the tradition to their children and grandchildren, perpetuating the techniques and the spirit of these old works. These families will almost always take the time to educate you about their techniques and history, and answer your questions.
How to Recognize Fakes
Authentic red coral of the species Corallum rubrum is precious, in short supply, and therefore expensive. Not surprisingly, fakes abound. Some jewelry and objects passed off as coral are actually made of wood, plastic, or other species of coral that are considered less desirable because of their porosity, size, form, or coloration. Bamboo coral, for example, is a beige-colored and more plentiful species that is sometimes dyed red to resemble Corallum rubrum. Much of the “coral” for sale in cheap souvenir shops around Naples are made of these imitation materials.
Authentic coral sometimes contains white flecks or small imperfections on the surface, though price is typically a better gauge. If the price seems too good to be true, chances are it’s not authentic Corallum rubrum. If you want to make sure you’re purchasing authentic red coral, buy directly from one of the makers in Torre del Greco. Alternately, if you wish to find a more sustainable solution, seek out an antique work from a reputable antiques dealer in Naples or the region.
Souvenir shops along the Amalfi and Neapolitan coasts sell junk to tourists who arrive escorted on tour buses or from cruise ships. Many of these tourist traps abound near the port of Naples and along the waterfronts of towns along the Amalfi Coast. Stick to the more well-known, reputable, and historic makers, and you’ll come home with a beautiful, high-quality souvenir you’ll treasure and proudly wear.
TORRE DEL GRECO