Red Coral Necklace

Souvenirs from the Sea

Original content by: Emily Macione

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About This Artifact

The thought of coral often conjures images of beautiful reefs beneath the seas in locations across the globe. One such place that is home to many species of coral is the Mediterranean Sea.  In addition to appreciating its beauty in a natural habitat, people have found many different uses for coral over the years.  Historically, coral was harvested for trade or sale.  One such industry that has made extensive use of coral is the jewelry industry, placing special focus on Corallium rubrum, also known as red coral.  This type of coral is especially good for jewelry-making because it is more malleable than other corals, allowing for it to be shaped and designed as desired.

Wearing coral dates back thousands of years, but initially it served a purpose other than fashion.  Both the ancient Romans and Egyptians believed that wearing red coral served as a form of protection, so they would have their children wear it to ward off bad spirits.  There was also a belief that coral held medicinal value, and that wearing it would keep one healthy and keep sickness at bay.  The Victorians carried on the tradition of having children wear coral as a form of protection.  During the 19th century, however, the use of coral began to shift as it became a form of fashion.  Young men traveling around Europe would bring it home as a souvenir of their travels.  As its popularity increased, people found new ways to work with coral, fashioning it into necklaces, rings, and earrings.  Native Americans also used it as early as the 16th century, when Spaniards began harvesting the coral as a material for barter and sale.  Its vibrant coloring and durable nature were two reasons it was sought after for jewelry making. Further, its surface allowed for designs to be etched directly into the coral itself.  It was workable and relatively easy to fashion into different forms of jewelry.  Victorian women enjoyed accenting their look with a variety of red coral jewelry.

This practice has lasted for many years, and today red coral is still a popular item for tourists to purchase when visiting Mediterranean countries such as Italy.  But the continued harvesting of precious coral is not without consequence or controversy.  In fact, international debate over this very issue has sparked a number of conservation groups to fight for its protection, and they have a good argument.  As the sale of coral jewelry has grown to stimulate tourism and the economy, the demand has exceeded what the ocean can sustainably produce. Coral grows very slowly and takes a long time to reproduce, so when harvested at a regular or accelerated rate, the coral beds do not quickly regenerate.  Additionally, overfishing along the coast in the Mediterranean has caused significant and detrimental decreases to the coral population there.  This has forced coral harvesters to go elsewhere, such as the Pacific Ocean, in search of coral for trade and sale.  However, the trend of depleting the coral population will happen in the Pacific Ocean within a few decades, if coral harvesting continues at the current rate.  In some Mediterranean areas, fishermen still use the practice of dredging, now illegal, to harvest the coral. This process destroys much of the life on the reef, not just the coral there.

Only time will tell what the future will be for red coral.  In order for a coral reef to "regrow" itself, it would need to be completely undisturbed for a period of years.  Conservation groups continue to lobby for the protection of coral, raising additional awareness in the process about the dangers and detriments of continuing to harvest it for commercial use.  Though it can be fashioned into beautiful jewelry or serve as a keepsake from a memorable vacation, the fact remains that continuing to harvest coral for such purposes will do irreparable damage to reefs and reef life.  Beyond being a home to a variety of marine life, reefs fortify and protect coastlines across the globe.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. In what ways does the growth of coral stimulate ocean life?
  2. How does dredging for coral damage more than just the coral itself?
  3. Why do you think the Victorians, and the ancient Egyptians and Romans before them, believed that coral could ward off evil spirits?