Red coral is a special material found in the sea and has been loved for centuries for its beautiful red colour. For a long time, coral was thought to have protective properties and was worn as a talisman. Nowadays, fishing for red coral is prohibited or regulated in many places, making it rare.
In his book Metamorphoses, the Greek poet Homer describes how coral originated according to the ancient Greeks. The hero Perseus was sent by King Polydectes to defeat Medusa, a monster with hair made of snakes, who turned everyone who looked at her into stone. When Perseus - with the aid of a mirror - had succeeded in beheading Medusa, he laid her head down in the sand. Coral then formed from the blood spurting out of her neck. Medusa's head had a protective effect for Perseus - he would carry her head on his shield and was therefore unbeatable - and coral was therefore also seen as a mineral that offered protection to its bearer. This custom was maintained for centuries. Young children were often given a coral amulet or teething ring. If you happen to walk through the Rijksmuseum one day, take a look at the paintings from the Golden Age. These sometimes depict children with a rattle set with a coral end. Apart from the fact that Golden Age toddlers could sink their incipient teeth into this strong natural material, people believed in the protective effect of a red coral rattle.
Coral is a type of polyp found in the sea. The polyps extract calcium from the seawater and use it to build their skeleton, which we then recognise as coral. Coral comes in different types and colours, for example white, blue, black and gold coral. Light pink coral is known as 'Angel Skin'. The most well-known and valuable variety, however, is the deep red colour that we know as, indeed, red coral.
Until the beginning of the last century, red coral was mainly found in the Mediterranean Sea. At the end of the 19th century, Sicily in particular became the heart of coral production, where huge quantities of red coral were fished up in a short period of time. This production was so successful that the coral reefs around the island were in danger of being over-exploited, so the Italian government had to regulate coral fishing. Outside Europe, especially Australia and Japan are important sources of coral.
Red coral is divided into no less than ten colour shades, from pale pink to deep red. The most valuable variety has a bright and deep red colour and a beautiful, hard sheen. Sometimes, especially when the coral comes from Japan, white stripes can appear in the material. The most valuable pieces of coral are cut into small sculptures or made into large beads. The least valuable pieces are also provided with a bead hole and sold as sprig coral. The best quality coral does not need any treatment. Lesser quality coral - which is becoming more common because less coral can be fished for - is often treated to achieve a more uniform colour and to increase its lustre. From the second half of the 20th century, the world's oceans became warmer and the production of good coral declined. Because the demand for coral remained as high as ever, coral that had undergone a colour treatment also appeared on the market. However, these are easy to distinguish from the real thing: when treated coral comes into contact with acetone, it gives off its colour.
Although coral was also worn in centuries past, it is known in the Netherlands as a popular component of regional jewellery in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In West Friesland and Volendam, large necklaces of several strands of blood coral were worn, set with large gold clasps. When you go to Volendam to have your picture taken in traditional costume, as a woman you will undoubtedly be given a large plastic one. In the Northern Netherlands, these were often necklaces of two to three strands with large beads in the shape of 'barrels' or 'cheeses'. In Zeeland, these could also be five or six strands of smaller beads.
Pollution, human encroachment, overfishing, rising ocean temperatures and rising sea levels have caused the quality of coral reefs to deteriorate rapidly. Coral was harvested faster than it grew, making it rare. As a result, the sale of red and pink coral is now restricted by the United Nations, through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Sellers must be able to provide documentation proving the origin of the material. Besides this better regulation, modern coral is often of lower quality than older beads due to the changed acidity in the oceans. Therefore, especially large antique and vintage beads are very popular nowadays. This way, you keep the original quality and value, without damaging Mother Nature.