Health and Fortune
Agris helmet 350 b.C.

Ancient populations have been coral fishing since the dawn of time on the Mediterranean shores. Because of its plant, animal and mineral nature it was always considered to have magical powers, especially because of its red color. The red coral, in fact has been a symbol of vital energy, fertility, health and prosperity since pre-history. It was considered to have superstitious, medical and protective powers by both the East and the West populations as it kept disasters and ill-fated incidents away. Ancient cultures used coral in necklaces or as a talisman, and it was considered a prestigious element in bracelets, rings, earrings, and buckles as a symbol of wealth and power. It was also used to decorate arms, shields and helmets of Nomad populations in the Far East as an attribute of royalty.


Coral was the sacred stone dedicated to Isis, the Goddess of fertility and maternity in Egypt, whereas for the Greeks and Romans it represented positive energy, a symbol of generating force, a means of contact with the Divine, full of extraordinary, therapeutic virtues and a potent symbol of passionate love.

To further confirm its outstanding powers, the origin of coral is thought to be associated with Greek mythology when Perseus severs Medusa’s head and the Gorgon’s blood pours into the sea transforming the seagrass into red, petrified arborescence of magical virtues. In the Christian faith, coral is considered a balance between life and death, and the possibility of rebirth as coral is associated to Christ’s blood and transforms it in a symbol of passion and resurrection.


Piero della Francesca, Madonna and child,1474, National Gallery of the Marche, Urbino
Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanni de' Medici as a child, about 1545 , Uffizi Gallery, Firenze

Thanks to ancient trade, coral was exported to the Far East where it was universally considered “red gold”, and used in the people’s costumes who thought it to be a powerful lucky charm.

Coral was sent to India since the time of Alexander the Great, and during the Roman era coral export was intensified and it was principally exchanged with pearls in the Far East across the Red Sea from Egypt to the Ports of Arabia and India.

Coral remained an important trade even during medieval times amongst the populations of Arabia and the Far East. Marco Polo wrote about how the Mongols and the Tibetans sought coral because they considered it to have an extraordinary vital force, similar to fire and light. In oriental religions, jewelry made of coral was considered to have a protective purpose in the most important phases of life: birth, circumcision, puberty, marriage.

For the Arabs, coral was the symbol of beauty and it aided in the search for happiness and in contact with the Divine. For the Indians it was a talisman that protected against negative forces. Coral kept sicknesses, sterility, contagions at bay and was thus given to children in the form of beads or branches to hang around their necks or on their belts; to wet nurses to produce more milk; and necklaces, earrings and bracelets were given to fiancés and brides to wish them a prolific life.



Artistic coral processing
Friar Matteo Bavera, Crucified Christ in red natural coral , XVII sec.,  Pepoli Museum, Trapani, detail

During the Neolithic Age, coral was used to decorate metal objects, but also engraved in shapes to represent idols. Greeks and Romans used coral in their jewelry, and later became masters in creating sculptures that represented idols of this classical religion. Similarly, as Christianity transformed these rituals and mythical beliefs, they used coral as a symbol of Christ’s blood, who, with his death, saved mankind from sin and as such, coral became increasingly used in the making of rosaries, crucifixes, sacred objects, and in ornaments for statues of Saints.

Artistic coral workmanship developed in Sicily thanks to Hebrew masters that schooled able sculptors and artists in the creation of necklaces and sacred figures. A local school in Trapani gave rise to the most skillful, famous and prestigious production of sacred and profane objects thanks to the increasing request of coral creations by wealthy customers like Popes, Cardinals, Kings, Princes amongst whom even the Medici of Florence created, over time, important coral collections. Coral workmanship and trade developed also in other regions of Italy including Naples, Genoa, Livorno as well as other Mediterranean countries like France and Spain. In the 18th Century, there was a huge demand for coral in both the East and the West.


Sicilian holy water font,  sec XVI-XVII
Torre del Greco bracelet production

The fishermen of Torre del Greco were amongst the most important competitors, since they had been coral fishing for a long time and had a well-organized structure, thanks to the rich coral reefs along the coasts of Northern Africa, Sardinia and Corsica, and also because they were protected by the sovereign Borbonici. They took advantage of the laws released in their favor, amongst them the Coral Code that regulated coral fishing, and the support they received from the sovereigns even before the opening of the first factory at the beginning of the 19th Century, and they established themselves in the territory as both coral fishermen and craftsmen.


During the 19th Century, the discovery of enormous coral deposits offshore Sciacca, and the large availability of coral that came from Japan, consolidated Naples and Torre del Greco as the main fishermen and craftsmen of coral, and still today they are known as the most important producers of coral engravings inspired by neoclassical design.