CORAL TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY?
For some time now, there has been an important topic discussed in the jewelry industry. The subject of the debate is Coral.
This article clarifies the difference between corals that are used in jewelry making and corals that live in aquariums.
A consensus of information is offered, pertaining to the current status of relevant corals and the role of the jewelry making industry in determining their future.
"Precious", "Semi-Precious" and "Reef Building" corals
- "Reef Building" corals are also known as "Stony" corals. Many of us swim, scuba dive and snorkel among them. We barely notice them as they sit motionless in fish tanks. They are almost NEVER used in the course of jewelry making (exceptions are noted further in this article).
- "Precious" and "Semi-Precious" corals are also known as "Deep Water" corals. These corals are typically used by the jewelry industry. With few exceptions (discussed later in this article), precious and semi-precious corals live in deep, dark, current driven waters. It would be a rare and special occasion indeed, if we could see a deep water coral while it was alive. We would have to be looking out of a submarine window! What we see are their processed skeletons, usually mounted into jewelry.
A little bit about reef building corals
Reef building corals live in shallow water (sixty feet or less) and are the builders of the larger "Coral Reef". The coral reef is the ocean's nursery. It provides shelter and protection to millions of marine flora and fauna. The plight of the coral reef has been a worldwide concern. One of the greatest threats to the reef building corals is the demand for them by the aquarium industry. Reef building corals (perhaps because they are familiar), are often misrepresented as the corals used in jewelry making. In truth, the jewelry industry has little or no interest in the reef building corals (with one exception, the blue coral).
A little bit about precious and semi-precious (deep water) corals
Deep water (precious and semi-precious) corals usually grow in depths of 500 to 1000 feet of water. They grow very slowly, some as slow as 1 millimeter per year! Obviously, it takes many years for these corals to reach reproductive age. When they do reproduce, very few young survive. These corals are not usually considered builders of the coral reef although they do provide critical habitat for other marine animals. Deep water corals are being considered for their pharmaceutical value but their primary value is to the jewelry industry.
What is the difference between "Precious" and "Semi-precious" corals?
Corals are living marine animals. The jewelry making industry utilizes the skeletons of these dead animals. The skeletons are also referred to as "coral". There are certain characteristics of these skeletons that separate the precious from the semi-precious corals. They are color, porosity, hardness and luster. Precious corals are more colorful, less porous, harder, more lustrous and harder to obtain than the semi-precious corals. Precious red corals are in the greatest demand. Semi-precious corals are less colourful, more porous, softer, and easier to get, than the precious corals. They must be stabilized, filled, treated and usually dyed to make them usable and appealing.
What corals are considered "Precious"?
- Red corals (Coralliums) are the most valuable of all the corals. The most desirable red corals are from the Mediterranean and Japan. There are several varieties. Red corals have been heavily exploited.
- Pink corals are a member of the red corals. Angel skin coral is a pink coral.
- Gold corals grow in only a few places. There are some in Hawaii and Alaska.
- Black (Anthiparian) corals are found in waters around the world. Some varieties of precious black corals grow in shallower waters and can be harvested by scuba divers. Black corals have been heavily exploited. Many countries have banned the export of these corals. There are many varieties of black coral and not all are precious.
- Bamboo corals are a bit of a mystery. Not much is known about them. The skeletons of these corals are more porous than other precious corals. They must be filled to obtain a luster. Much of the "red" coral on the market is actually dyed and filled bamboo coral. Bamboo coral has proven to be of value in the field of orthopedics.
- Blue coral is the only reef building (non deep water) coral used for jewelry making. Their skeletons are desired for their color, a color that ranges from grey to blue. Their skeletons are porous and must be filled and stabilized.
- Sponge corals should not be confused with true sponges (such as Barrel sponges). Sponges are NOT sponge corals. The skeletons of sponge corals must be stabilized and are often dyed.
- Note: Depending on the source, some corals are described as "Precious" in one location and then described as "Semi-precious" in another. This may be due to confusion, lack of information, depth of habitat, availability, or reference to a lower quality or different species of that coral.
What about the "New" corals on the market?
Many "new" corals have appeared on the market. These corals are not really rare or new. Clever names, as well as unusual dyes and treatments, are added to known corals to make them marketable.
Apple Coral: These are sponge corals typically imported from Taiwan and Indonesia. Their skeletons sometimes have a natural reddish color but are usually dyed to enhance or change their color. In their natural state, they are as porous as their name. These skeletons must be stabilized (made harder) to be of any use.
Tiger Coral: Tiger coral is actually a stabilized sponge coral that has had a black matrix added to it. It is then pressed into a brick shape and cut for cabochons, beads etc.
White Coral: It appears that white coral is a bleached, filled and polished coral. No one seemed to know what specific type of coral is used (maybe low quality bamboo or red coral). (There is a true "White" coral, but it is not used in jewelry making).
Fossilized Coral: Fossil corals are well...fossils. They are usually found inland, sometimes in rivers, in places where the ocean once was. The fossilized coral we most often see is from Indonesia or from Tibet (dyed coral that is often sold as red coral).
Faux Coral: This coral is not a coral. It is sold under a variety of names. It is made from crushed up or powdered coral that is glued together with polymers (or whatever) and then shaped to look like coral. These products use any bit of coral and may be one of the primary reasons that younger corals and smaller species of coral are targeted. In previous times, only the skeletons of older corals and larger species were used. Now, any age and size is vulnerable.
Farmed Coral for jewelry making (A myth?): One may occasionally find a few beads made from odd pieces of stony coral...those pieces would be white, porous (rough textured with multiple holes) and chalky pieces of a stony coral, but these would be a rare exception. Deep water corals cannot be farmed. These corals have very complicated needs. At this time, their needs cannot be met in any way other than that which is provided in the natural world. Even if the science was there, these corals are very slow growing and it would not be economically profitable to grow them. What farmer would plant a crop that would mature only after his or her death? Note: Blue coral (a reef building coral) has been raised for aquariums.
A Note about Coral Farms: Coral farms provide an important source of live coral to the aquarium trade. Buyers of farmed corals can buy guilt free. No harm to the reef was done as a consequence of their purchase. Coral farms also provide replacement corals for reef restoration! CLAP! CLAP! FOR CORAL FARMS!!! Speaking of reef restoration… Sara, of Soft Flex Company shared a great story about the latest development in the restoration of Staghorn coral in Florida!
Where do we get our precious and semi-precious corals?
The ONLY coral being legally harvested at this time in the US is black coral from Hawaii. It is harvested by state licensed scuba divers using sustainable harvesting techniques. The amount that is harvested is relatively small and as such, most black coral is imported. ALL other corals are imported, mostly from China. The US is the number one importer of precious or semi-precious corals in the world!
Are the precious and semi-precious corals regulated and protected?
International (worldwide) regulation
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is the regulating agency that provides international protection through trade regulation for various species. 157 countries are participants. For a list of the participating countries see http://www.cites.org/eng/disc/parties/index.shtml. Unfortunately, only two of the precious and semi precious corals are regulated i.e. black corals (Antipatharian) and blue coral (Coenothecalia).
All other corals used in jewelry making i.e. the red (and pink) corals, the gold corals, the bamboo corals and the sponge corals, that are imported into the US are left UNREGULATED on an international level.
National regulation and protection
The US: It is illegal to harvest (with the exception of the highly regulated Hawaiian black corals) or to export any corals from the US .The Lacey Act imposes civil and criminal penalties on a federal level for taking, possessing, transporting, or selling corals (and other wildlife) that have been taken illegally.
There is NO law prohibiting the IMPORT of the red (and pink) corals, the gold corals, the bamboo corals or the sponge corals, therefore, there are no penalties imposed by the Lacey Act.
Other governments: The European Union and some other governments have implemented regional measures to preserve their corals such as quotas, permit regulations, reserves, and limits or bans on the use of dredges and other nonselective harvesting equipment.
What has happened to the corals?
Very, very little information is available on the status of the blue coral, sponge corals and bamboo corals. More information is available on black corals and is reflected in the many protective measures that have been implemented. Most recently, attention has been focused on red and pink corals (for the purpose of the article, hereafter referred to as red corals). They are the corals that are in the biggest demand by the jewelry industry and are the ones in the most trouble.
How the red corals have been harvested
Historically, the harvester's pattern has been to locate a coral bed, then to exploit everything that is in that coral bed. The harvester would then move onto the next location. Coral has been harvested in the following ways:
- Dredging: Red corals have been harvested for hundreds of years with dredges. Dredges are huge, heavy crosses with attached nets that are dragged across the ocean floor. They take everything in their path. Only a fraction of what is taken is actually used, the rest is waste. These coral beds do not recover. Some countries have outlawed dredging but it continues in others. Enforcing the laws is difficult. Poachers dredge even when the country has outlawed it.
- Scuba: Specialized scuba divers harvest shallower beds of coral. The corals that divers can access are limited by depth restrictions. Because of indiscriminate harvesting by some divers, many of the shallow beds of corals have been wiped out.
- Submarine: Most recently, remotely operated submarines are used to harvest corals in the deepest of waters. There appears to be NO safe place for these corals. For the unethical harvester, it is only a matter of finding them.
The supplies of red corals are being depleted
- Harvests of red corals from Mediterranean waters have been reduced by 66 percent from 1985 to 2001. So much so, that the jewelry making industry there, (once famous for its red corals) is forced to import.
- A record of combined harvest from the Mediterranean Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean shows that 445 metric tons were harvested in 1984 compared to just 50 metric tons in 2004! It has taken only 20 years to deplete the harvest to such extreme lows. (A little trivia here: 1 metric ton=2,205 pounds!)
- For more statistics (and VERY heavy bedtime reading), refer to the June 2007 Proposal for the CITES listing of the Coralliums (Red corals): http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/14/prop/E14-P21.pdf
Consider these facts:
Do we contribute to the depletion of the red coral supply?
- Check out online auctions. The day this article was written, there were over 11,000 listings on ONE site!
- The United States, imported more than 26 million pieces of red coral from 2001 to 2006.
- The US is the number one importer of precious and semi precious corals in the world!
- The primary demand is for red corals by the jewelry industry!
Have we tried to regulate the import of red corals?
In 2007, an effort was made to gain protection via regulation for the red corals. The United States submitted a proposal for the listing of the red corals in Appendix II of CITES. (The listing is required for the corals to be regulated). The benefits of such a listing would have provided:
- consistency in regulation for the import and export of red corals on an international level and
- a monitoring system for more accurate assessment of the trade (many of the statistics from CITES collections are used to protect reef corals). Sixty two (62) countries supported the measure and the decision was approved. Sometime later, delegates voted by secret ballot to overturn the decision. A document (more heavy reading) listing the reasons for the overturn is available at http://www.iwmc.org/IWMC-Forum/MarcoPani-JaquesBerney/D1242_IWMC_ENG_LR.pdf.
What can we do?
As long as there is a demand for red corals and the import of red corals is unregulated, there will be excessive, unselective and illegal harvesting. This could lead to the inability of the red corals to recover and an end to the supply for the jewelry trade forever (not to mention to the world of medicine). We must do what we can.
In 2010, there will be another attempt to have the red corals listed in Appendix II. We can support the 2010 proposal to gain a CITES listing for red corals. A campaign has been launched by SeaWeb called the "Too Precious to Wear Campaign". More
information can be found here: www.tooprecioustowear.org.
We can sign a pledge: Refuse to purchase or use any corals except for those that can be documented as having been harvested using sustainable practices. Sign on here: http://www.seaweb.org/TPTW/pledge.php
Enlist the support of others: Take every opportunity to share your knowledge with your suppliers and your buyers. Part of the problem has been lack of information and misinformation. You can help. Let people know that one aspect of great importance is that corals are helpful in the world of medicine and their potential is barely touched! For example, it has been discovered that bamboo corals (a red coral) have provided an important substance for orthopedic bone grafts!
- Use alternatives: Many materials are more durable than natural Coral. Coral is quite soft (easily damaged), porous (can be ruined by soaking up body oils, perfumes and deodorants) and can fade over time. Here are some ideas:
- Carnelians, Obsidian, and Onyx are quality alternatives. They have been used for centuries.
- Glass is another alternative that has been used as a substitute for thousands of years. Not only can the colors of corals be duplicated, but the texture and the shape of coral can be produced as well.
- Dyed Tagua nut, horn and bone are also good alternatives.
- Try resins, waxes, polymers and plastics. The irony is that these materials are already being used to make low quality corals marketable anyway. No one would want these corals in their natural state. Why not leave coral out of the recipe all together?
- Flaunt your awareness and your coral free marketing practices: Be proud of your investment in the future of our corals! The reality is that the use of coral can be a detriment to ones sales. Eco savvy buyers will not buy any jewelry made with coral. Not only will they not buy anything that uses coral, if coral is on the table, they won't buy ANYTHING at all.
- Support organizations that are taking action: Support SeaWeb. Sea Web is the organizing agency behind the Too Precious to Wear campaign. One important feature of their website is the Marine Photo Bank. Photos depict the damage being inflicted on our oceans, including dredging.
- SeaWeb: http://www.seaweb.org
- Reef check: http://www.reefcheck.org
- World Wildlife Fund: http://www.worldwildlife.org
- The Coral Reef Alliance: http://www.coral.org
- The Ocean Conservancy: http://www.oceanconservancy.org
- Here is a site that lists many other organizations that you might want to consider: http://www.lizasreef.com
- Re-evaluate your need for coral: If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.
Many companies have taken a stand, some are listed on The Too Precious to Wear website. Here is what Mike Sherman (owner of Soft Flex Company) has to say: "As a leading supplier to the beading industry I am very concerned with the destruction of any natural resource. We sell very little coral, shell or any other ocean sourced materials. As a company owner I will make a commitment to close out our current coral inventory and promise to no longer sell coral. It has been something I have wanted to do for some time."
To Buy or Not to Buy?
In the course of writing this article, I scoured the internet, read chapters of jewelry and gemology books, and sifted through a mindboggling quantity of scientific and non-scientific papers. I spoke with educated and committed people from coral farms, reef protection agencies and jewelry supply companies, who generously shared information with me by internet and telephone.
I would like to thank Dr. Gregor Hodgson, Executive Director of Reef Check Organization, who helped me understand the specialized needs of precious and semi-precious corals. I would also like to thank Doug Hollister, a coral farmer who helped me appreciate coral farming for what it is. And finally, a huge, huge "Thank You" to Mike Sherman, owner of Soft Flex Company, for taking a stand on behalf of the corals.
By the way... I won't buy coral. What about you?
Written by Michele Benson, New York.