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Sea lovers say coral is too precious to wear

Sea coral is blessed with wonderful colors, an intricate design and memories of the lapping ocean, but some argue it's being harvested at a rate that nature can't keep up with.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sea coral is blessed with wonderful colors, an intricate design and memories of the lapping ocean. It's no wonder that the worlds of fashion and home decor are in the midst of a love affair with it.

Some argue, though, that coral is too precious to wear.

"We want to discourage consumers from purchasing coral," says scientist Andrew Baker. "It's like ivory. It's a product of a living animal and the harvest of this item is unsustainable."

It's unsustainable not because new coral won't grow, he says, but because there are no limits on the use or sale of coral and it's being harvested at a rate that nature can't keep up with.

"Dredging deep-sea coral forests is like clear-cutting the rainforest for sparrows: You're doing so much damage for something so small," says Baker, who is also an assistant professor at the at the University of Miami and the Pew Institute for Ocean Science.

Baker and a team from the Too Precious to Wear campaign, helmed by the nonprofit group SeaWeb that also took on the caviar and restaurant seafood causes, is lobbying to add pink and red corals, also known as Corallium, to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, the global group that has put limits on rhinoceros horns, tiger feet and ivory. Coral had made it to the last round of negotiations in 2007, according to Baker, but failed to make it to the final list.

Next week, the pressures corals are facing will be discussed at the International Coral Reef Symposium, which will be attended by more than 2,500 scientists, economists, conservationists and educators. The theme of the meeting is reefs for the future.

Baker doesn't want the world to wait. SeaWeb had noticed in the past couple of years that coral — real, faux and artistic interpretations — was all over the fashion runways and home-decorating magazines, explains Julia Robertson, program manager for Too Precious to Wear.

Around the same time, though, global warming, for which coral is considered a key indicator, had become a buzz topic, so marine-science groups saw an opportunity to raise public awareness, she says.

"We wanted to tap into the recognition of coral in fashion, design, jewelry and home decor. It's easier to talk to people when they know what you're talking about," Robertson says.

The campaign was launched earlier this year with partners including Pottery Barn, Tiffany & Co., Lela Rose, Vena Cava and Chantecaille Beaute.

Sylvie Chantecaille says her beauty company got involved about 18 months ago, largely because of her interest in the ocean.

"My whole family snorkels, dives. I grew up in the South of France diving and I have seen a change in the ocean over the years," she explains. "When you spend so much time under the water, you realize how amazing it is. I wanted to do something to protect it."

So Chantecaille developed Protect the Paradise compacts — one with eye shadow, another with powder — embossed with miniature ocean scenes to raise money for marine research and conservation. The project put Chantecaille in touch with other coral fans, including Baker, who taught her to appreciate their beauty from afar.

"I love the look of coral. They're so beautiful," Chantecaille says. "I used to be completely in love with coral jewelry so I totally understand the appeal."

But, she adds, "It's going to become like ivory. I used to wear ivory but I'd never wear it today now that I know what it means and what it symbolizes."

Tiffany stopped selling coral jewelry in 2003 and instead uses precious stones to replicate the exotic color and shapes found in the sea. The company brought the bulk of manufacturing in house, allowing it to examine sourcing, explains Linda Buckley, Tiffany vice president of public relations. While coral was not a huge part of the assortment, it set off some bells.

"Tiffany is closely associated with the natural world — it's where we get our inspiration and materials," Buckley says. She adds: "If you have healthy coral reefs, you have healthy oceans, healthy seabeds and healthy oysters — and we get our pearls from healthy oysters."

(Buckley notes that Tiffany has also examined their use of cultured pearls and decided it doesn't pose the same environmental risks as coral.)

"No one disputes coral as an object of beauty," says Baker, "but it is more important as a habitat."

Coral from shallow reefs, which are mostly a light color, tend to be used in interior decor, while the deep-sea corals — known as the "precious" black, pink and red corals from the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean and the Pacific near Hawaii — are used for jewelry.

Yet, you only have to go to South Florida, where Baker is based, to find white coral being sold as a souvenir in kitschy shell shops, even though it was harvested thousands of miles away. This frustrates Baker and he thinks it probably confuses tourists, who are getting a mixed message not to disrupt the reefs when scuba-diving, but allowing them to buy chunks of dead coral.

"It's like going to a zoo," he says. "You learn about threatened tigers and then go to the zoo store and find a tiger pelt."

Fashion and decor surely aren't the main culprits in the destruction of the reefs, but artist Michael Aram makes the case to take them out of the equation entirely.

"One coral necklace doesn't necessarily mean the end of the world, but why, when you can still celebrate it in a form that's representational, still use it? It doesn't make sense," he says.

Aram favors casting coral sculptures in metal, then painting with enamel. Coral's natural unpredictable shape allows him a lot of flexibility, he says.

"My coral is evocative of the real thing but mine can be a fantasian coral — you can be pretty wild with coral."