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.
Since the 1950s, scuba divers have been integral to coral harvesting off the coasts of Italy and Spain. In fact, fishing for coral with nets was banned in 1994, and today only scuba divers are allowed to gather coral off the Italian coast. 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.
Is that legal?
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. However, in marine-protected areas off the coast of Corsica, once-depleted colonies of Corallum rubrum have reestablished themselves. 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.
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.
Like coral, the making of many cameos begins with harvesting the bounty of the sea. However, cameos have their own unique properties and therefore constitute a separate set of techniques from coral.