The fascinating world of "red gold"

Published in Focus
29 December 2016

The history of coral told by someone who has made it a reason for living

The origins of gold production in Naples are ancient. Already in ancient Parthenope worked many goldsmiths from Magna Grecia. The activity was flourishing in Roman times, even in Pompeii, where a shop was found with branches of coral on the desk, the carving of which is typical of our area.

We spoke with Caterina Ascione, art historian and designer, member of the historical family of jewelers of Torre del Greco, for centuries the land of coral. The first thing she told us about is the world record of Torre del Greco, the only place in the world where cameo is created from shells, an art which dates back to the institution of the first coral factory in town, by the Marseille Bartholomew Marten, in 1805.

In time, "the carvers of Torre del Greco specialized in carving shells because the value of the raw material was low, allowing small shops to operate with little capital", she explained. Not only: Neapolitan jewelry has always been linked to the production of souvenirs of Campania archaeological remains. "The Etruscan jewelry was often used with coral and enamels, and, even before that, Naples was the manufacturing center of excellence of precious metals throughout the Mediterranean. The treasures of the Chapel of San Gennaro are an example: the extremely innovative work of the miter by Matteo Treglia and all the other small jewelry of which we have examples".

Today, in the jewelry industry, Campania region is the fourth pole in Italy and the crafting and processing of coral and cameo continues to be a typical art of Torre del Greco.

The story of coral is tied to women. "The factory in Torre implanted by Marten employed mainly women workers - explains Ascione - In Torre, for more than 6 months a year, women were the only inhabitants of the city because the men left for coral fishing. Since they were paid half at the beginning and half upon their return, also based on the amount of coral fished, women were forced to work to support themselves and coral allowed them to do so. They were engaged in operations requiring more sensitivity and precision: threading, punching and the choice of the corals. The toughest work, however, was left to the men, such as cutting and polishing (the coral was wiped for seven hours under running water in cloth bags). Still today a certain division of roles remains, even though not as strict. The threading and the choice of colors is still left to the women, but there is a greater number of women entrepreneurs".

Is it true that in the past, coral was considered an apotropaic object? "Of course! It was considered a symbol of strength, vitality, and fertility. Until the 1700s it was thought to be the only object belonging simultaneously to the three kingdoms of nature: plant, due to its arboreal form, mineral, because it’s as hard as a stone, and animal, because when freshly caught it has small octopuses on it. Even in the coral transformation process from soft, in the form of seaweed, before being caught, to when it hardens right out of the water, there is always a reference to a phallic shape. At the same time, it was propitiatory to fertility: coral was given to young brides to keep them healthy and make them procreate and to nurses to increase the tastiness of their breast milk. In Christian times, coral was associated with the color of the blood of Christ. It is a sector in which women and men have always had a very close relationship. According to the legend, in fact, Gorgon, from whom it is said that coral originated, was both a man and a woman".

What does coral represent for you? "I come from generations of coral, fishermen and entrepreneurs. I’ve been exposed to coral since I was a child; it’s my life. Then I began to study it and, in fact, learning the history of coral has made me understand better who I am today".