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G - 37 : Cervo - Corals for India & China

When entering the church of Saint John the Baptist in Cervo, its serenity and tranquility captures you instantly. Sun rays pour through the windows from the high ceiling. The interior is bathed in bright light. It feels as if the rays carry the Holy Spirit. When not used for mass, the church is quiet and an oasis of tranquility. It is wonderfully decorated. Built from 1686 to 1734 by the Ligurian architect Marvaldi di Conia, it is one of the most beautiful baroque churches I came across. Wondered how the locals could afford such a piece of art.

The tiny Town of Cervo with the dominant "Chiesa dei Corallini" counts 1'200 people today

A small memorial plate right next to the church’s entrance tells us how. The locals call their church “Chiesa dei Corallini”, the church of the coral fishers. It was financed with proceeds from coral fishing, a centuries’ old tradition in Cervo. Cervo was a big player in this business and made a lot of money from it.

The beautiful Interior of the "Chiesa dei Corallini"

Since antiquity, red corals were precious and expensive, often valued at par with gold. Even today, a kilo costs EUR 20’000.-. For comparison, gold is EUR 50k per kilo. The first pieces of coral jewelry were found in Egyptian tombs. The Romans loved red corals too. They did not only wear them as jewelry but also as charms. Toddlers of wealthy families often wore coral bracelets or necklaces to protect them against evil spirits and other dangers. The tradition continued to Christianity. There are several paintings of Baby Jesus wearing red corals necklaces or bracelets.

Madonna and Child with Angels, 1459 by Giorgio di

Tomaso Schiavona. Baby Jesus wears a Coral Necklace

In the Victorian age, red corals became all the rage and a must have jewellery. Red corals were considered to be more precious than pearls and looked perfect before sparkling diamonds, sapphires and rubies rolled up the field. The many English travellers who went on the "Grand Tours" to Greece and the Levant brought corals to the UK.

Lady standing next to a Piano holding a Manuscript,

1808, by Adèle Romany. A coral necklace like this costs

today at least 30'000 Euros

Red corals or Corallium Rubrum grow in the entire Mediterranean at a depth of 5 to 300 meters. They attach themselves to rocky surfaces and prefer dark spots. Most often they can be found in underwater caves. We already visited two coral towns on our previous journeys: Alghero in Sardinia and Zlarin in Dalmatia.

In the Mediterranean, Corals are found in the Adriatic, around Sardinia, Sicily and Tunisia

Until recently, red corals were “fished” with a tool called “ingegno”, two beams joint together in a cross with nets hanging from the beam’s end. The tool was dragged along the cave roofs and occasionally caught a coral. Ripping off corals this way led to huge losses. Only a fraction ever made it to the surface. Researchers estimate that the production in the Mediterranean averaged 100 tons per year, of which 40 tons were from Italian waters.

The crude Coral fishing Tool used by Cervo Fishers

Coral fishing was a tough business. Cervo’s men sailed by end of March and did not return before August. Their fishing grounds were off the coasts of Sardinia and Corsica – the fishing places a closely guarded secret. Cervo would send out 10 boats every season, each manned by 10. I guess that 10 – 20 % of its male population was engaged in coral fishing. The boats had enough supplies to stay at sea for six months. Fresh water was always a constraint. The men had to get it at night from surrounding islands in order not to give away the secret fishing grounds. The fleets were always exposed to bad weather and at times an entire fleet was lost, Muslim corsairs from Algiers and Tunis were another threat. They regularly preyed on coral fishers, sold their catch and enslaved the crews. Cervo’s boats were armed and sailed in convoys. But that did not always help.

A "Corallina" boat from Naples - could not find a

Picture of a Boat from Cervo

Europe was never rich in materials for making jewelry. Silver, Bernstein and corals were all it got. Gold came from Africa, pearls from the Persian Gulf and gem stones from India. I thus assumed that red corals were mostly used in Europe. As ever so often, common sense can be wrong. Most red corals were actually exported to Asia. From Roman to Modern times, there was a thriving west-east trade in corals. Hindus believe that corals have divine qualities which protect them from evil and wars. Buddhists believe that red corals are an incarnation of Buddha. In any case, demand for corals from India and China was high.

This Red Coral Chinese Buddha Sculpture was made

in late 19th Century but illustrates the Trade

The Asian demand for corals helped Europeans to pay for the luxury goods they craved for (spices, gems, fabrics etc.). Asians were never particularly fond of European products and considered them as low quality. They wanted to be paid in silver. Red corals were a welcome alternative. Considering that the ratio of gold to silver was 1 : 10 in ancient times, using red corals for payment was highly efficient for European merchants. Not surprisingly, there was no boat sailing east without having red corals as cargo.

Red = Coral Fishing Green = Coral Fishing & Processing Blue = Processing

Thus, there were never many refining centers in Europe. Asian wanted the raw material. The few existing centres were in the hands of small Jewish communities. When expelled from Spain in 1492, they settled in Livorno and Naples and took the trade with them. Europe was not a big jewelry market during the Middle Ages anyway. Royals considered the right of wearing jewellery a privilege that should not be shared. Dress codes for commoners at the time did not allow people to put on jewellery. Just look at the portraits of King Henry VIII or his daughter Queen Elizabeth. Their dresses are stud with hundreds of pearls to underline their privileged, royal status.

Queen Elizabeth I in her Armada Dress, 1588 by an unknown Artist

In the Mediterranean, Genoa and Venice were the dominant coral traders. They had buyers in the ports of the Levant or Alexandria in Egypt from where the corals were sold on to China and India. The raw corals were polished and carved into rings, statues and amulets at their final destination.

The beautiful Facade of Cervo's "Chiesa dei Coralloni"

Coral fishing was for centuries a high risk – high return business. It is thus no wonder that the citizens of Cervo invested a good part of their earnings into their “Chiesa dei Corallini” where they prayed for a good season and a return of their men in August. The local priest would always bless the departing boats. But giving God his fair share of the profit like buying re-insurance policy. Just in case!

Red corals are still fished today. Albeit much more carefully. The crude extraction depleted coral stocks to such a degree that there are almost none left above 30 meters depth. The old fishing methods are banned today. Coral fishing is done by licensed coral divers only. France 24 has a good video on it. Corals are still highly appreciated in today's jewellery business. Mostly for contemporary pieces. Nobody in Cervo fishes corals any more - the market and demand is still there.

A Cartier Bracelet from 1929 : Gold, Lapis Lazuli and Red Coral

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