Torre del Greco and the Fruit of the Sea

The harvesting of coral in the coastal city of Torre del Greco, Italy, dates back to at least the beginning of the 15th century. But turning “red gold” into jewelry didn’t begin until 1805, when the King of Naples, Ferdinando IV, granted Paolo Bartolomeo Martin of Marseille, France, a 10-year monopoly on the manufacture of coral in the town. At that moment an industry was born.

Today the city of rolling hills in the province of Naples and in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius is the hub of the coral and cameo jewelry world, with approximately 350 companies and 2,600 workers directly involved in turning coral into objects of beauty. About 75 percent of the city’s production is exported. Its largest markets are Japan, the United States, and Europe. Annual income from the trade is roughly $222 million.

Nearly all the companies that toil in this art form are family owned and very small. More than 60 percent operate with no more than three people. Most work independently, but in 1978 some of them organized into the Associazione Produttori Coralli Cammei e Materie Affini (National Association Coral Producers, Analogous Cameos and Materials, aka Assocoral). In September and October of 2006, this organization held a bicentennial celebration of the local coral and cameo industry with a museum exhibition, an international design competition, and a fashion show.

The monthlong exhibition, called Two Hundred and One: Two Centuries of Coral Manufacture in Torre del Greco, was held at Villa Campolieto, a 19th-century private villa on the edge of the neighboring city of Ercolano. The exhibition showcased the artistic and economic legacy of coral and cameo making. More than 150 coral and cameo pieces, many borrowed from other museums, along with related artifacts, trace the history of the coral and cameo industry from its beginnings—including the original proclamation from Ferdinando IV to Martin—to the present day.

Coral manufacturing during the industry’s early days consisted primarily of fili e collane (strings and necklaces) made from various stages of smoothed coral. This type of production, which has been modernized to some extent, continues to be the backbone of the coral industry.

Vincenzo Liverino, of coral manufacturer Basilio Liverino, explains during a tour of the workshop that, after being fished, the unrefined coral (actually skeletal matter) is washed and separated according to size, shape, and color. It is then separated further before being cut, pierced, smoothed, polished, and strung according to its shape and texture into beads, necklaces, and other types of adornment.

Not long after the formal coral industry was established, the Torresi people found another way to create jewelry from the sea. They developed a technique using hand tools to engrave conch shells and hardened lava (lavic) to create cameos. The engravings, which have changed little over the years, are mainly relief sculptures, usually oval or round, that include portraits of women’s faces, mythological representations, flowers, animals, landscapes, and scenes of daily life in Torre del Greco.

They’re used as bracelets, earrings, pendants, and brooches. A visit to manufacturer and retailer Giovanni Apa provided a quick tutorial on how cameos are made. According to manager Alessandro Scala, the shells of three species of conch primarily are used for production: Cassis madagascarensis, with a white surface and a chestnut brown inner layer; Cassis rufa, which has an exterior the color of pale flesh and an inner reddish layer; and Cassis cornuta, the largest of the three, with a white outer layer and an orange inner layer.

These conch species are fished in Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean. Their shells are favored for engraving because the two layers of colors allow figures in relief to stand out.

To create the relief figure, the engraver first cuts out the cup, the part of the shell that will be used for the engraving, Scala explains. The shapes of the cameos are marked on the inner surface of the cup. The cut piece is made smaller with a grinding wheel before being stuck onto a short wooden stick to make the piece easier to handle. Its rough outer layer is ground down further to the proper thickness. The engraver then makes a quick pencil sketch of the figure on its surface and begins to carve.

The engraver uses a set of tools called burins, with rounded wooden handles and sharp edges of different lengths. A wide-pointed burin is used to remove the white excess material of the shell. The engraver then uses different burins to continue carving the figure from the two-color shell. The relief sculpture emerges as the worked shell changes color. A fine burin is used to finish the engraving. The cameo is then polished and soaked in soapy, lukewarm water to remove any grease.

Once the fundamental manufacturing techniques were in place, the coral and cameo industry blossomed to the point where it needed to ensure there were enough trained workers to meet demand. So in 1878, a school of coral and cameo was founded. It’s the only such school in the world.

Today, the Scuola Artigiana Torrese (School of Arts and Crafts) is still going strong. It admits 20 students each year, based on admissions tests and other qualifications, a school spokeswoman explains. The ratio of teacher to student is nearly one to one. The students enter at age 13 and leave five years later skilled in at least one facet of the coral and cameo trade and ready to become part of the local workforce. “It operates like a private school, but the kids do not pay a fee,” the spokeswoman says. “Municipal and regional governments pay.”

Manufacturers used only coral fished from the Mediterranean Sea until the latter part of the 18th century, when some of the larger manufacturers were able to source coral from the Sea of Japan. Coral from the Mediterranean is red and thin. Its Pacific counterparts are much larger and pink. The manufacturers called this color “angel skin.”

Production in the 20th century grew or declined in relation to the wars being fought in Europe. During the second half of the century, international demand for the industry’s products grew as manufacturers began to enhance coral with gemstones and precious metals. Late in the century, manufacturers developed automated ways to carve cameos. Hand-carved cameos are still produced and demand a higher price than their automated counterparts.

As the industry entered the 21st century, the story turned again to Pacific Ocean pink coral, which Hawaii and parts of Asia (besides Japan) began to export, according to Mauro Ascione, president of Assocoral, who led a tour of the exhibit for journalists.

This new coral gave manufacturers more creative flexibility, Ascione explains. Artists, who already were using red coral to create small sculptures, were able to create larger and more varied pieces. “In 2000 we began to import coral material from the Pacific Ocean,” he says. “This resulted in big works, including statues and sculptures.”

Entreprenuers and Collectors

The public coral exhibit celebrates the coral and cameo industry of Torre del Greco, but elaborate coral jewelry has been used as adornment and a status symbol for centuries all over the world. Many local coral and cameo manufacturers are also collectors and have small museums filled with coral works inside their workshops. JCK visited two workshops whose families are as proud of their museum collections as they are of their own products.

Antonino De Simone, president of the coral manufacturing company that bears his name, has a collection of coral creations from all over the world that date back to the time of Alexander the Great. He often loans his pieces to archeological museums in Italy and abroad. “I am an entrepreneur of coral,” De Simone says. “But I am really in love with coral history.”

Many of his prize pieces come from the Asian subcontinent and the Middle East, primarily India, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Tibet, and Nepal. His Turkish pieces date to the fourth century and reflect social standing among rulers, he says. His collection includes Native American pieces from the 17th century.

Basilio Liverino has a collection of more than 1,000 coral and cameo pieces housed in a museum carved out of 20 feet of volcanic rock next to the company’s production facility. This museum includes elaborate sculptures ranging from cowboys to sea creatures to large faces.

The Torresi techniques of coral and cameo making may have been founded 200 years ago, but, as the bicentennial exhibition shows, artists and craftsmen with new ideas have built on the solid Torresi foundation to create modern jewelry. To help ensure that the industry continues to grow with the times, Assocoral started an international design contest.

A total of 322 designs from 139 artists and craftsmen entered the Torre del Greco Coral & Cameo Awards competition. About 70 percent of the entries came from outside Italy. Ten finalists had their designs built by a Torresi company and displayed as part of the bicentennial exhibition. The winners were announced Sept. 30, 2006.

Italian designer Giulia Palmentieri won first prize (worth $2,605) for her red coral necklace and earrings set, titled Elegance. The pieces were manufactured by Fratelli De Simone.

Second prize ($651) went to Korean designer Yun Ho Hwang for Beauty of Blank, a three-color necklace and earrings set, made by Ascione Giovanni & Sons. Third prize went to Clara Dodino for a piece called Juggler, made by Mondial Coral. A special mention was given to Marina Mercuri’s Butterfly, which was made by Gennaro Borriello. It received the highest score among cameo jewels.

The finalists’ creations were featured in a fashion show in the courtyard of Villa Campolieto on Oct. 2, 2006. Not long after the sun faded into the Bay of Naples, models adorned with the coral and cameo creations, wearing dresses designed for the jewels by Neapolitan designer Rosario Farina, traversed down a grand (and treacherous) marble stairway two stories high.

Following the fashion show, a local band played traditional Neapolitan music, continuing the celebration of the industry’s history while reaching out to the world for its natural resources and artistic talent.