Italy’s Red Coral Capital Struggles With a Warming Sea

TORRE DEL GRECO, Italy — In the Vesuvius-shadowed outskirts of Naples, between the archaeological marvels of Pompeii and Ercolano, the port town of Torre del Greco has preserved its own age-old heritage: a singular artistry with the Mediterranean Sea’s red coral. But the niche jewelry industry now survives on just a fraction of red coral harvests of the past, as rigorous limits have been imposed to protect diminished marine colonies from environmental hazards and help them recover from decades of exploitation.

“We’re for these restrictions, because if coral disappears, we’re all closing down,” said Vincenzo Aucella, who runs Aucella Gioielli, a family business founded in 1930 that produces coral jewelry and cameos, the city’s other specialty. He is also president of Assocoral, an association representing 70 of the city’s coral businesses on the local and national levels. “We have to protect coral, and we have to protect the economic fabric of Torre del Greco.” Behind him, glass cases held rows of stands displaying twisted collars of coral beads and claret-colored branches strung together in necklaces.

From the ancient era until a ban in the 1980s, fishermen dredged the Mediterranean seabed, indiscriminately gathering marine life into enormous nets. Toward the end of the period, remotely operated vehicles dove down as far as 330 feet, previously unreachable depths, to strip coral colonies.

The region’s red coral harvest reached a peak of nearly 100 million tons in 1978 and then declined rapidly. International fishing treaties drafted by the U.N.’s General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean now require all countries bordering the sea to meet the same mandates, significantly reducing hauls: In 2018, just nine tons of red coral were collected. But, specialists say, populations are still struggling to rebound.

The smaller harvests “are due to all the restrictions, but the coral is there,” said Gioia De Simone, the sixth-generation owner of Antonino De Simone, one of Torre del Greco’s principal coral dealerships. It is “a renewable resource, unlike diamonds.”

According to the United Nations, however, the scientific community has found that coral populations in the shallow water range, from the surface to a depth of 160 feet, have nearly vanished, and populations in deeper water are drastically reduced in comparison with those of previous decades.

Corallium rubrum — red coral, also known as precious coral, a distinct species from the Japanese coral also used in jewelry — could be considered renewable because, unlike most gemstones, it is not a mineral: It is a polyp-filled invertebrate, a marine animal with an extendable tentacle that hunts zooplankton for food. Its body is protected by a calcium carbonate shell whose formation is hindered by today’s environmental shifts, impeding its regeneration.

As for the coral’s distinctive color, carotenoids — the natural pigment that ruddies things such as carrots, tomatoes and flamingoes — turn its bony structures into dogwood-pale pinks, sunset oranges or arterial reds.

Sprouting on the seabed in clusters around Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica as well as along the coasts of Tunisia, Morocco and Spain, colonies of the invertebrates can live for as long as 500 years; given their slow-paced underwater existence, it can take a century or more to grow coral’s archetypal forked branches.

Only a small number of licensed scuba divers are now allowed to harvest red coral, the limit varying by country. And they must select coral branches with a minimum basal diameter of close to three-tenths of an inch, a 30- to 40-year growth, collected at 160 feet or deeper.

Softer and more frangible than other precious gems, red coral is cut mainly into cabochons or beads, or carved by adept hands into more complex designs, especially cameos (which also can be made of hard stone like onyx and agate). The skill of Torre del Greco’s artisans with this difficult material has perpetuated its reputation as a jewelry center for centuries.

“My father instilled the passion for this unique craft of Torre del Greco in me,” said Vincenzo Mazza, a cameo engraver, “and I’ve sought to instill the same passion in my son.”

Three generations of Mazzas — Gennaro, 82; Vincenzo, 53; and Luca, 21 — were dressed in blue artisan smocks and house slippers, and sat side by side at a long plywood work bench in the family apartment. They were incising conch shells with delicate three-dimensional designs less than a fifth of an inch deep, like sculpting the surface of an eggshell.

Torre del Greco’s first coral jewelry and carving factory was founded in 1805 by Paul Barthèlemy Martin, who arrived from Marseilles, France, where the coral industry was in shambles in the wake of the French Revolution. After centuries of delivering coral to Livorno, Genoa, Trapani and other Italian cities in the jewelry trade, local seafarers began bringing boatloads back for the town’s own industry. And while the men were on monthslong fishing voyages, women quickly became the primary labor force, working the material at home — a domestic tradition carried on by artisans like the Mazza family today.

By 1881, The New York Times reported, “nearly the whole of the vast yield of the Mediterranean is brought to this town,” and a full third of its 30,000 residents at the time were employed in the coral trade. The fishing boats, called “coralline,” stopped departing from the port decades ago, but the coral processing and jewelry-making businesses remained. Today they employ around 1,500 of the town’s 82,000 residents.

Coral continues to have a prominent role in Torre del Greco’s economy. Although there are no current estimates of its business value, a 2014 tally by the University of Naples Federico II calculated its worth at $82 million.

At Ms. De Simone’s company, artisans transform powdery-surfaced branches into glossy beads and cabochons, as well as cameos, signet rings and pendants. “Each piece is selected and worked by trained eyes and hands,” Ms. De Simone said as she displayed a string of rosy coral beads carved in the shape of dainty strawberries.

The branches, delivered in rough form directly from fishermen, are purchased for anywhere from several hundred euros to several thousand euros per kilo, she said, but their real value becomes apparent only as the artisans clean and work the material, revealing its color and quality. “Sometimes you’ve made a great deal, sometimes you realize you didn’t,” she said. A beader seated beside her was sewing pierced chunks of fiery coral into a choker, and a finished floral necklace of slender scarlet petals sat on a paper towel atop her desk.

Raw coral arrives with certifications showing that it has been gathered according to regulations, so Ms. De Simone can assure her clients, which include some of the world’s top jewelry brands, that all the products made from the rough material at her headquarters are responsibly sourced.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization is now in the midst of a red coral study, scheduled to be completed in 2022. Its initial research, begun in 2020, revealed a species “at the limits of its capacity to survive,” said Miguel Bernal, a marine scientist on the project. “But legal fishing is not the principal cause of coral’s problems today.”

The organization is “interested in the whole value chain,” he said. “Red coral doesn’t contribute to nutrition, but it does contribute to livelihoods, and there’s an intangible benefit in maintaining a tradition that has existed in the Mediterranean for millennia.”

The study is exploring whether current harvest levels are sustainable, but the reasons for the damage to the marine animal are outside the organization’s control.

“Coral is a sensitive creature, and global warming and acidification of the seas inhibit the growth of coral’s skeleton. Dr. Bernal said. “What we really need is a reduction of emissions. But that’s beyond our scope.”

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