Mountain Coral
High in the Himalayas the early Tibetans found and treasured naturally occuring Turquoise.
But also, rarer and intriguing, they occasionally came across fossilized Red Corals, shells and Ammonites.

These on the highest mountain ranges, linked back to when the Himalayas were under the Oceans.
Before they began to be thrust up by tectonic plate movement, as the continents collided.

These Turquoises and Corals (blue and red together) were worn both as decoration and status,
but mainly as protection from Evil and Misfortune, later defined in Buddhism as Demons.
These colours becoming overtime, part of their Religious and everyday wear, to scare away these Demons.
Worn as beads or as embellishments, set in silver or gold jewellery, accessories, functional items and prayer boxes.
A touch of magical colour, further enhancing and protecting both the worn and the wearer.

However, as you can imagine fossilized Coral, now known as “Mountain Coral” was extremely rare and only the very lucky would find it,
but only the powerfully rich could afford to wear it.

Red Coral
The taste and desire for Red Coral was thus created, by those who wanted to wear Mountian Coral but couldn’t afford it. .

Meanwhile ancient trade routes we’ve hardly dreamt of existed, between far flung sources and markets.

For instance in Badakshan, in one valley in the Pamir Mountains of North Eastern Afghanistan,
Lapis Lazuli has been mined by hand and brought out on perilously narrow mountain trails, using ponies, for over 5,000 years.
Traded down into Persia and on to the Meditteranean Empires.
But that’s another story….
Italian Red Coral and Baltic Amber may have found their way back on the return trips overland.

On the Meditteranean Roman Fashion wasn’t based on cycles as ours is, but was geared more and more towards the Exotic, the Rare and Extravagant.
To cater to the tastes of rich Roman women, the reach of the Traders had to stretch further bringing rarer and rarer items
from further and further away, causing money to flow out of the Empire.
This, and its ultimately overextending itself trying to defend its farflung borders, led finally to the collapse of the Empire.
The Senate even tried to pass the “Oppian Laws” to restrict the amount of gold a woman might wear,
hoping also to curb their power and extravagances.
(Suetonius, “The Annals”)

But with the deaths of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra the 3,000 year old civilisation of Egypt, it’s wealth and its wheat, fell into Roman hands.

Following Cleopatra and Anthony’s defeat in 31 bc, another Trade route opened up during the early reign of the first Emperor, Tiberius (formerly Octavian, Caesar’s nephew).

So now Red Coral, dived for off Italy, was brought over to Egypt, then up the Nile.
Off loaded and transported overland to Berenice, a port on the Red Sea.
It then set sail catching the “Trade Winds” across the Indian Ocean to India and “Taprobane”, the Roman name for Sri Lanka.
Roman coins and evidence of trade have even been found further up India’s East Coast.
Later when the Monsoon had finished the Trade Winds reversed allowing Traders to sale back west, laden with Spices, Gems and Indian Cottons.
From Taprobane goods were off loaded, and others brought on board for the return trip.
But here it was only a half way staging post, eventually routes developed that exploited the Trade Winds all the way to and from China.

From ports in India the Coral then found its way up through Leh in Ladakh to Tibet, which at that time was affluent and thereby drew the Coral to it.

Baltic Amber was also in demand, adding much wanted Yellow to the palette and I assume it came the same way
traded out of Germania to Roman then on with the Coral.
Of course, it would have travelled overland from the Baltic, too, tapping in to the Northern sources of the Silk Route.

Later other sources like the Persian Gulf and Japan were exploited for Corals and Pearls.
The Meditteranean is now pretty well fished out of Coral, wars have been fought over it.
In Monaco just off the beach, beneath the feet of water skiers, heavily barred cages protect the Prince’s Red Corals, from poachers and thieves.

So now the hunt has moved west out the “Pillars of Hercules”.
Morrocco is running out and hunters are travelling further south down the West Coast of Africa in their search.
Their technique is to trawl tangled nets behind their boats hoping to entangle and detach the coral without diving for it.
And the rest of the reef is damaged in the process.
As it takes about 250 years for a Red Coral _"tree"_to grow to about 80 cm, it’s not replenishing.

Although the trade in New Genuine Red Coral is now restricted, to stop over harvesting and the resultant damage to reefs,
Old Red Coral is literally recycled, being reset and reworked as older beads, for instance,
are accidently broken or worn through constant wear.
Baring this in mind I was shocked to see so much fine Red Coral jewellery in the windows of the shops
on the Ponte Vecchio, of Florence and in Venice, around San Marco.

Window Display, Florence.

We particularly hunt for this Old (and therefore previously well worn) Red Coral, it’s not easy to get
and we treasure it when we find it.

Sometimes paler grades have been used and often older pieces seem to have mellowed,
with many softer shades of milky oranges occuring amongst any given string of beads.
These paler shades, ironically, aren’t as valued by their Tribal wearers,
who prefer the rich reds, symbolizing blood and the life force.

Old Red Coral (The twigs are more recent.)

Whereas we in the West avidly collect them because they do reveal their age, having faded slowly with time and wear.
Long wear with continuous rubbing on a string or thread actually cuts into the softish Coral,
elongating the hole and eroding the bead, eventually wearing through the piece rendering it unthreadable,
as it now sits badly to one side.
Sadly the worst have to be removed lest they cause kinks or cut the thread.
You’ll notice a variety of beads in any string and that sometimes they sit irregularly
adding another texture to the string, on top of the “abrash” of varied colours.
When working with old beads of Red Coral we especially try to keep this colour, size and shape mixture
relaxed and not too structured, so as not to stifle their natural warmth and beauty.
I assume it’s rarity (and therefore status) as well as its beauty and Talismanic qualities would explain
why its use in Central Asian Tribal Jewellery is so wide spread.
Often combined with Pearls it appears all along the Silk Route, Mongolian, Khirgiz, Tajik and Uzbek jewellery all feature it.

Old Coral in a Tajik, Wedding Necklace.

Hill Coral
Meanwhile in Tibet and its cultural neighbours like Nepal, poorer people who also need to be protected
in everyday life wear more affordable lookalikes.
Often Chinese or Indian glass copies of Coral are worn by Naga and Nepalese Hilltribes, termed “Hill Coral”
and luckily neither they nor the Demons can tell the difference.
(After a glance the Demons immediately look away from the threat, thereby being effectively and economically deflected.)
These are usually a bit bigger, being “wound glass” and often round or oval in shape, sometimes with a grain
or slight ridges and trails from winding the molten glass.
Older pieces are heavily pitted, with tiny chips and these smoothed down with time.
Smaller elongated lozenges, pierced in the centre, and threaded horizontally,
are also made to imitate Coral twigs.
Some are even made in softer pinks duplicating the toned down colours of mellowed Antique pieces,
These may only be glass, but we really like them because of their romantic history and the aged feel when they are handled or worn.

Naga and Nepalese Hilltribe “Hill Coral” (old glass.)

Bamboo Coral
About a decade ago the Chinese began producing “Bamboo Coral” by dying dead white coral, deep rich reds and pinks.
These are flooding the market, sometimes used to create stunningly chunky chokers and necks, which would be unaffordable if not just unobtainable in Genuine Old Red Coral.
Unfortunately, when exposed to strong or excessive sunlight these dyes are unstable and will fade, usually to an orange.
Also avoid spraying any jewellery with perfume or hairspray, particularly Bamboo Coral,
as this will activate the dye possibly staining your skin or clothing.

Bamboo Coral.