Coral comes from the Latin corallium and the Greek gorgeia.
The word coral is ambiguous because it refers to colonial marine organisms belonging to a very large "family". These corals are sac-like animals that build a calcareous or keratinous external skeleton.
Coral reefs are found all over the world, from the tropics to the North Sea and the Mediterranean. But most corals are not of jewellery quality. Red coral (in its varieties corallium rubrum and corallium japonicum), which can in fact offer colours varying from pinkish white to pink (angel skin), and from orange (salmon), to the famous "oxblood" that can be found in the Mediterranean, has nothing to compare with the corals of the warm seas that can be found even at shallow depths, the latter are sometimes dyed and have a market value, mainly for decoration.
Coral consists of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and organic matter. Very sensitive, coral can only develop in water between 13 and 16 degrees Celsius.
Corallium rubrum is harvested at a depth of 70 to 130 metres, south of Corsica and off Naples by coral reefers.
Its hardness is 3.5, its density varies from 2.6 to 3.8 and its refractive index ranges from 1.486 to 1.658.
Its soft luster, low hardness and opacity are ideal for carving statuettes, cabochons or beads.
Because coral is porous, it can be dyed and it is difficult to spot imitations. Natural red coral contains carotene, but this can only be verified in a laboratory. It is therefore best to go to trusted suppliers.
The "corallium rubrum" comes from the western Mediterranean (Gulf of Naples, south of Corsica), and from the north of the African coast.
The corallium japonicum variety is harvested off the Japanese islands of Ogasawara and Ryukyu, as well as off the coasts of the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Fishing is now controlled because the species is endangered and the collection with trawler nets has caused immense damage and depopulated the colonies.
The slow growth of coral (less than 1 cm per year), means that it takes 50 to 75 years for coral branches to reach a size where they can be harvested.
In Greek mythology, the origin of coral is linked to the story of Perseus.
Perseus was given the mission to kill the Gorgon Medusa, an evil creature with hair like snakes whose gaze petrifies those it reaches.
Armed with a shield whose interior served as a mirror to avoid being petrified by the monster's gaze and a sword given to him by Hermes, Perseus triumphed over Medusa and cut off her head. The blood of the latter would have touched the kelp, petrifying it and transforming it into coral. Coral is called 'Gorgeia' in Greek, because Medusa was one of the three Gorgons.
The Coral Wedding symbolizes 11 years of marriage in French folklore.
How I like it
I like it in a ball and associated with Tahitian pearls, (see Ann Gérard's "Cerises" earrings), but also sculpted on Massimo Izzo's jewels or in branches chosen and staged by the designer Stefania Minardi.
Coral branches have been carved or polished for thousands of years. Beautiful objects are exhibited in Italy at the Archaeological Museum of Naples and in some private collections in Torre el Greco.