or red coral
is the common name given to Corallium rubrum
and several related species of marine coral
. The distinguishing characteristic of precious corals is their durable and intensely colored red or pink skeleton, which is used for making jewelry.
Red corals grow on rocky seabottom with low sedimentation, typically in dark environments--either in the depths or in dark caverns or crevices. The original species, C. rubrum
, is found mainly in the Mediterranean Sea
. It grows at depths from 10 to 300 m, although the shallower of these habitats have been largely depleted by harvesting. In the underwater caves of Alghero
(the "Coral Riviera") it grows at the depth of 4 m. The same species is also found at Atlantic
sites near the Strait of Gibraltar
and at the Cape Verde
Islands. Other Corallium
species are native to the western Pacific
, notably around Japan
) and Taiwan
; these occur at depths of 350 to 1500 m in areas with strong currents.
In common with other Gorgonacea
, red corals resemble small leafless bushes up to a meter tall. Their valuable skeleton is composed of intermeshed spicules of hard calcium carbonate
, colored in shades of red by carotenoid
pigments. In living specimens, the skeletal branches are overlaid with soft bright red integument, from which numerous retractable white polyps
protrude. The polyps exhibit octameric
Coral as a gemstone
The hard skeleton of red coral branches is naturally matte, but can be polished to a glassy shine. It exhibits a range of warm reddish pink colors from pale pink to deep red; the word coral is also used to name such colors.
Owing to its intense and permanent coloration and glossiness, precious coral skeletons have been harvested since antiquity for decorative use. Coral jewelry has been found in ancient Egyptian and prehistoric European burials, and continues to be made to the present day.
Precious coral has relative density of 3.86 and hardness 3.5 on the Mohs scale. Due to its softness and opacity, coral is usually cut en cabochon, or used to make beads.
Coral in mythology
The origin of coral is explained in Greek mythology
by the story of Perseus
. Having petrified Cetus
, the sea monster threatening Andromeda
, Perseus placed Medusa
's head on the riverbank while he washed his hands. When he recovered her head, he saw that her blood had turned the seaweed
(in some variants the reeds) into red coral. Thus, the Greek word for coral is 'Gorgeia', as Medusa was one of the three Gorgons
Poseidon resided in a palace made of coral and gems, and Hephaestus first crafted his work from coral.
The Romans believed coral could protect children from harm, as well as cure wounds made by snakes and scorpions and diagnose diseases by changing colour. Pliny has recorded the trade of coral between Mediterranea and India in the first century A.D.
- The two biogenic precious gemstones, coral and pearl, although drastically different in appearance, are chemically very similar. Both are mostly calcium carbonate deposited by marine invertebrates.
- Another unrelated species, the Hawaiian black coral is sometimes used as an ornamental material. Its skeleton is not mineralized, consisting mostly of conchiolin.
- In Vedic astrology red coral is associated with the planet Mars.
- A branch of red coral figures prominently in the civic coat of arms of the town of Alghero, Italy.