Italians have pulled coral and seashells from the Mediterranean and the Adriatic since ancient times, using the bounty of the sea to make some of Italy’s most beautiful adornments. The region 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 important initiatives to protect them, the making of cameo and coral jewelry and other objects remains a vibrant industry in the Naples region.

An ancient past

The history of cameos and coral ornaments stretches back to antiquity, when relief and engraved carvings on precious and semiprecious stones, shells, corals, and glass were widely admired. The ancient Egyptians had centuries-old experience as masters of glyptic art, or the art of carving gems. They made amulets, cylinder seals and stamps, signet rings, and innumerable pieces of jewelry. Many of these works were carved with inscriptions, scarabs, royal figures in profile, and other imagery, carved of materials as diverse as ivory, glass, chalcedony, ceramic, steatite, amethyst, alabaster, and shell.
The ancient Greeks continued the tradition of carving gems and shells but the Romans so greatly admired cameos that they brought the art of carving them to a new level. Although some Roman cameos were intended as jewelry, especially rings, others were exceptionally large and probably meant as collector’s items. Many of these cameos were made of glass, a special technique that involved carving through different-colored layers of fused glass.
Thousands of cameos with busts of Roman emperors and beautiful women fill museum collections around the world, made of shells, stones, and even lava rock. The Romans believed coral to have a protective effect over children, and bestowed coral pendants and bracelets on their newborns to ward off sickness and bad luck. The Roman philosopher Pliny, a noted naturalist, wrote that coral could be counted on to protect the wearer from being struck by lightning, and even could thwart would-be seducers whose advances may be unwelcome.

Harvesting coral

The working of coral is related to cameos, as it involves similar materials and techniques. Over many centuries, coral harvesting has been a major enterprise along the Neapolitan coast, as well as other Italian coasts. Not only Naples but also Genoa, Livorno, and especially the port cities of Sicily like Trapani and Messina, and those of Sardinia, are famous for jewelry and other objects crafted of coral and shells. Sicilian coral working was particularly famous in past centuries, and Neapolitan collectors held prized works from Trapani, on the west coast of Sicily, in their collections. According to historical sources, some of the most renowned masters of coral were Jews working in Trapani. A small community of these artisans relocated to Naples over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

A taste for the ancient world

In Renaissance Italy, the interest in reviving antiquity brought cameos and carved corals back into vogue. At that time, the carving of shells and coral became more common. 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 and amassed in the private collections of Neapolitan aristocrats. Mencia de Mendoza, bride of Fernando of Aragon, owned a large collection of cameo and coral jewelry, including a cameo set in gold depicting Julius Caesar in profile. Treasuries belonging to monasteries, convents, and other religious institutions in Naples and its surrounding region counted carved corals and shells among their most prized possessions. These items included paternostri, liturgical objects, as well as adornments for statues that were paraded on feast days.

By 1600, fleets of special coral boats called coralline sailed daily from Naples and the port of Torre del Greco to satisfy this increasing demand for carved cameos and corals. The industry grew significant enough that coral fishermen organized themselves into a trade association for their mutual benefit. Their boats sailed to the major coral reserves off the Neapolitan coast, down the coastline to the warm waters south of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and north of Tunisia and Algeria. They 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.

Eventually, European explorers in the New World brought back new species of shells pulled from the West Indes, bringing renewed interest in shell cameos. In 1805, a royal cameo-making enterprise called the Real Fabbrica di Coralliwas 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 the coral. From the beginning, the factory turned out both jewelry as well as small sculptures and other art objects. This period marked a new era in the economy of Torre del Greco, bringing together the once separate trades of fishing, craftsmanship, and international commerce.

A major industry for southern Italy

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. Cameo production took off around the same time in Torre del Greco.

During that time, English nobles on a Grand Tour of Europe made Naples an obligatory stop, gobbling up corals and ancient cameos by the dozens. English private collectors began to amass impressive holdings of ancient gems. Classical taste and excitement over the discovery of archeological sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum fueled an interest in anything from antiquity, especially, small, portable collectors’ items such as engraved gemstones and cameos from the Roman period.Collecting and handling gems gave British collectors a privileged sense of intimacy with ancient culture.The Earl of Chesterfield commented on his countrymen’s nearly uncontrollable appetite for these prizes, complaining that Grand Tourists ran through Italy “knick-knackically,” with “days lost in poring upon almost imperceptible Intaglios and Cameos.” Antiquarian dealers sprung up in Rome, Naples, and other Italian cities to feed the hunger of these avid collectors.

Caroline Bonaparte, the younger sister of Napoleon I, became queen of Naples in 1808 through her marriage to Joachim Murat. Under her influence, neoclassical taste overtook the European aristocracy, fueling the Napoleonic court’s interest in cameos and taste for anything that smacked of antiquity, from jewelry to furniture and fashion. Many of the works commissioned by members of Napoleon’s inner circle were produced in Torre del Greco.

In the twentieth century, haute jewelers around the world sought out artisans in Torre del Greco to create signature pieces for their fashion lines. Cartier, Boucheron, Bulgari, and van Cleef& Arpels began to incorporate it into their designs. Valentino even designed a famous sandal made from coral beads wrought in Torre del Greco. Recently, a young man from Torre del Greco named Amedeo Scognamiglio set up shop in New York City and Tokyo, bringing his hometown tradition to the big city and bringing popular, innovative fashion ideas to this ancient craft by incorporating more modern motifs into cameos instead of mythological subjects and portrait busts.

An enduring tradition

Today, the port town of Torre del Greco, situated halfway between Naples and Pompeii, about twelve kilometers south of Naples in the ominous shadow of Mount Vesuvius, remains the epicenter of Italian cameo production and coral jewelry making. Its artisans still cater to an international clientele; more than three-quarters of the work produced in Torre del Greco is exported. Over the last century and a half, Torre del Greco’s economy and sense of cultural self-identity has been inextricably linked around this traditional art, with several thousand skilled craftspeople and merchants involved in the centuries-old international trade of these coveted souvenirs made of shell and coral. Today, many visitors make the trek to Torre del Greco in search of necklaces, brooches, rings, and other works of these renowned craftspeople.

Read more about Italian traditions in my guide, Made in Italy. 

Have you discovered something wonderful during your travels? Drop a comment below. I love to hear your stories!

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