The Artist's Guide
Precious Mediterranean Coral: From The Art of Harvest to Beautiful Jewelry
Highly coveted for its vibrant color and organic beauty, the Mediterranean red coral—or corallium rubrum—is one of the most precious corals in the world. This extraordinary treasure from the sea has been used since ancient times to make jewelry and even protective charms.
Harvesting red coral from the depths of the Mediterranean
The harvest of live corals began about 5,000 years ago using iron hooks. Likely affixed to wooden poles, they were used to extract the sea creatures from shallow outcrops. By the first century B.C., a dredge consisting of two pieces of wood with nets attached at the four ends was in use to entangle coral branches and tear them off their housing. Trawl gears remained a harvesting tool of choice for centuries until they got banned in 1989 in Sardinia and eventually in all of the European Union five years later, due to their devastating effect on the species and on the seabed itself. Today, scuba diving is the only legal way to harvest red coral in the Mediterranean. Every year from May to September, a number of authorized divers collect it by hand at depths of up to 120 meters (approximately 390 feet).
Italy at the heart of red coral jewelry making
Sitting at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, in the province of Naples, the small fishing town of Torre del Greco, has been the center of Europe’s red coral trade since the 18th century. The town is home to hundreds of red coral manufacturers, who have been in the business for generations, traditionally purchasing raw coral harvested by divers off the coast, then crafting the organic gem into the finest jewelry. How is it transformed into jewelry? Local artisans cut the calcified branches into small segments with a saw. These small pieces are then fashioned by hand into beads or various shapes before being polished and mounted in every kind of jewelry possible, from rings to earrings to everything in between. With such an impressive amount of craftsmanship, it’s no surprise that coral jewelry is worth more per gram than gold jewelry! Today, as Mediterranean supplies are scarce, manufacturers resort to importing similar coral from the Pacific.
An age-old tradition at risk
As corals grow and reproduce very slowly, centuries of overharvesting combined with environmental changes have left the precious coral of the Mediterranean in a state of decimation, preventing populations from recovering fully. This has led many jewelers to reconsider using the gem, like Tiffany & Co for instance. But artisans who rely on red coral for their livelihood argue that they should be allowed to continue using the species as long as it’s done in a sustainable way.