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Call them the diamonds of the sea. Jewelry made from Mediterranean red coral has found a new, unprecedented level of desirability among Chinese consumers — whose insatiable penchant for the rare marine skeletons and their fortuitous red color has sent their cost skyrocketing by up to 500 percent in the last three years. But a double whammy of human disturbance — direct by overfishing and indirect by climate change — has left the sea’s slow-growing red coral population in a state of decimation.

The Mediterranean’s red coral colonies — most concentrated off the coast of Sardinia, but with pockets as far north as Spain’s Costa Brava and the French Riviera — now only yield an estimated 25 percent of their original harvest, said a researcher at the Universitat de Barcelona, noting it would take a 60-year harvesting ban for red coral to recover its population to sustainable levels1.

This story first appeared in the November 4, 2015 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

With Italian harvesting parameters now limiting supply even further, and Chinese demand only growing, the search for red coral has begun stirring geopolitical tensions. European supplies are tight, and Chinese fishermen have been spotted illegally dredging deep waters off the coast of Japan — a land far outside their legal jurisdiction — in search of Pacific varieties that closely resemble the Mediterranean’s Corallium rubrum, agitating the two nations’ already tenuous relationship.

The Chinese alleged dredging of Japanese oceanic territories is just the latest ecological malady that red coral has been dealt. Overfishing continues to obstruct the species’ regrowth, as does the residual effects of climate change. Drastic shifts in ocean temperatures and pH balance, conditions that prescribe the species’ overall health, have further impaired the coral’s future.

While beloved since antiquity, red coral is now most prized by the Chinese — who are insatiably consuming the material in the form of beaded jewelry strands. In July, the display cases at New York’s Antique Jewelry Show were awash in these beads — with coral taking a large portion of the real estate that diamonds once occupied. Agnes Lee, owner of New Pagoda Specialty, a coral and jade antique jewelry dealer in New York, says that coral has become so popular recently that its jewelry has begun to be sold by weight, rather than by the piece. Ninety percent of her coral purchasers are of Chinese origin.

Unlike diamonds, which are presently sinking in value and sales — they’ve shed 14 percent of their value in the last year — coral’s price appears to be on a consistent upswing. Coral purveyor Amedeo Scognamiglio, of Faraone Mennella, sold a single-strand, 100-gram coral necklace last year for 150,000 pounds (about $234,000 at average exchange for the period), but in light of surging demand, he would sell the same piece now for more than 200,000 pounds ($306,000 at current exchange). Five years ago, the same necklace would have cost between 50,000 and 60,000 pounds ($76,000 and $93,000 at average exchange for the period). He reports that coral is presently valued at about $1,000 per gram, compared to between $250 and $300 five years ago.

“A year or two ago, we would go to trade shows. Now it’s not even necessary — the demand is so high that we know everything we make will be sold,” Scognamiglio said. “Diamonds you can find as long as you have money, but with coral it’s not a matter of how much money you have — you just won’t be able to find it.”

Scognamiglio’s family hails from Torre del Greco, a small fishing town near Naples, Italy, that has been the royal-ordinated capital of Europe’s red coral trade since the 18th century. The town is home to approximately 400 red coral manufacturers, mostly owned and operated by about 15 industry legacy families. They purchase raw coral harvested by divers off the coast of the Mediterranean and transform the scarlet, calcified branches into jewelry.

Scognamiglio also reports that 90 percent of his clientele is Chinese. His firm has temporarily halted its production of cameos in favor of polished beads because “when you carve coral, you are wasting a lot of it — and at this price point, it doesn’t make sense.”

While his business may be roaring, it is doing so amid a jewelry industry largely divided on the hot-button issue of coral usage. In 2002, Tiffany & Co. publicly declared it would not use red coral in any of its future designs, claiming that the label prides itself on sustainable practices and that it could not source red coral in keeping with that standard. “Although our coral sales before 2002 were minimal, when we came to understand the lack of traceability in our coral supply chain and the issues with red and pink coral in particular, we made the decision to stop selling it,” Anisa Kamadoli Costa, chairman and vice president for The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, stated. The firm joined a public pledge titled “Too Precious To Wear,” along with labels including Irene Neuwirth and Monique Péan — a campaign forged in the lead-up to the 2010 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ vote to protect red coral from harvesting. The CITES induction did not pass — a failure that ocean activists blamed on commercial interests. “Italy really pushed the European Union to oppose this listing — they were anxious that high-profit sales to Chinese and others would disappear as a result of international trade restrictions, so the listing did not succeed under this pressure,” said Mark J. Spalding, president of The Ocean Foundation.

Without protection, red coral is still used in the collections of brands including Dior Haute Joaillerie, Gucci fine jewelry and Bulgari. Dior and Gucci declined to comment, while a Bulgari spokesman said, “Bulgari adheres to all international laws and regulations in its sourcing practices, and it does not use any protected coral.”

RED CORAL AT A GLANCE

What is Red Coral?
Red coral, or Corallium rubrum, is a branch-forming coral species found in the Mediterranean Sea and is the most valuable of all precious corals. Similarly structured red corals located in the Pacific Ocean are also being harvested for jewelry. Unlike reef corals, red coral is found deep in the sea (up to 600 meters)4 and builds treelike formations rather than bulk masses. It’s also the only species that is red, both inside and out; other corals owe their color to a thin outer layer of algae.

Red coral grows between 0.2 and 2 centimeters in length, and between 0.24 and 1.32 millimeters in diameter, annually. Due to commercialized fishing, it’s now uncommon for the species to reach its historical full size of 30 to 50 centimeters1.

Corals, red varieties included, are a colonizing creature and build their calcium carbonate skeleton slowly via multiple generations of inhabitants. While red corals do not provide as dense a habitat structure as reef-creating species, their branches are “some of the only three-dimensional structures…in a way that creates hiding places or shelter,” said John Hocevar, Greenpeace oceans campaign director.
History of Red Coral
Red coral, according to archaeologists, has been prized since the Neolithic era, when it was harvested for ornamental usage. Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations have been documented using red coral for jewelry and decoration1.

The red coral trade achieved particular efficiency in ancient Greece, when fishermen developed an implement, dubbed “St. Andrew’s Cross” — intersecting wooden planks covered in netting — that when dragged across the Mediterranean seabed break coral off its rocky anchoring, along with any additional flora and fauna in its path2.
What is Dredging?
The bulk of the Mediterranean’s red coral population was lost at the hands of “dredging,” a harvesting technique that “is like clear-cutting for the ocean,” said Greenpeace’s Hocevar. “You can probably compare it to hunting for squirrels with a bulldozer in the forest — it destroys everything around it.”

Dredging practices were outlawed by the European Union in 19943, but in the lead-up to its abolition, “you had people arrange to have a lot of red and pink coral taken out of the Mediterranean before the ban went into place — which reduced the amount [of red coral] left in a very rapid moment,” said Spalding. “Now we see more sustainable harvesting practices, but they focus on a much smaller basis of biomass.”

Today in Italy, red coral branches are harvested with chisels by a limited contingent of 100 licensed scuba divers who are only allowed to fish in rotating sea beds from May through September.

Regardless, it would take immense conservation efforts to restore the Mediterranean’s red coral population to pre-dredging numbers. According to The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean: “Sardinia, Sicily, and parts of the French and Spanish seacoasts all had significant Corallium banks in the 1950s, but most have been overexploited and are no longer commercially viable.”
Ocean pH Change
Worldwide, coral faces deficits beyond overfishing. Mass-mortality events and ocean temperature shifts have stalled red coral’s recovery. “We have a tremendous amount of temperature, chemistry and other threats to coral, which means you have to be very certain that harvesting methods are not exceeding the abilities of animals to reproduce [in this environment],” said Spalding.

Shortly after the EU’s dredging ban, red coral off the coast of Provence, France, experienced a mass-mortality event, with a fungal and protozoan disease “linked to temperature anomalies”4 killing millions of colonies in 1999. In 2003, 40 percent of colonies off the nearby coast of Marseille were affected in another environmental catastrophe5.

Besides temperature hikes, an atmospheric increase in carbon dioxide — the byproduct of burning fossil fuels — has led to an acidification of ocean water worldwide. For coral, living in acidic water, “is like putting chalk in a jar of vinegar,” Spalding said, and impedes the coral’s ability to grow.

Red coral growth rates have already been observed to be slowing. According to a report published by The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean: “Throughout the Mediterranean, C. rubrum populations have shown a dramatic decrease in their size, age, structure and reproductive output over the last 20 years.”
Why the Chinese Interest?
Chinese interest in coral, according to Scognamiglio, is in line with the country’s partiality toward other opaque materials — like jade and ivory. Because Mediterranean and Pacific red coral is the only species that is scarlet inside and out, the coral’s color plays into the Chinese cultural adage of red items signifying good luck and fortune, he explained.
Chinese fishing In Japan
With Mediterranean supply chains on lockdown, Chinese demand has led local fisherman to seek out red coral beds in deep waters off the coast of Japan. There, the coral population is “deeper than you can go with scuba,” said Greenpeace’s Hocevar, who added the poaching is likely being done with dredging techniques. “Because it’s such a lucrative item, there are people willing to take risks and fish illegally.”

Coral poaching has strained relations between Japan and China. Japanese media reported that in 2014, the Japanese government seized 16 Chinese fishing vessels, but has spotted hundreds mining coral from its waters in the last year.

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