Jewelers Divided Over Use of Coral

New York Times, December 8, 2009

In the 19th century, it was customary for young English gentlemen to spend a few months, even years, on a “grand tour” of Europe, returning home with mementos that might have included trinkets of coral from this Neapolitan community at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.

Convinced that it warded off evil spirits, the Victorians, like the ancient Romans and Egyptians, prized Corallium rubrum, the precious red coral species found in the deep waters of the Mediterranean.

Coral continued to enjoy a special place among jewelry and fashion lovers, until fairly recently.

Now, some jewelers have stopped using it, worried about the environmental effect that the trade has had. Campaigners also want to offer red coral more protection from over-fishing. But others, particularly those who rely on coral for their livelihood, believe they should be allowed to continue working with the beautiful species, in a sustainable way.

Tiffany, the high-end U.S. jeweler, stopped selling coral in 2002. Other companies like Stephen Dweck and Temple St. Clair have since followed suit.

“Coral popped on to our radar screen five or six years ago,” Michael J. Kowalski, president and chief executive of Tiffany, told a coral conservation conference in New York in October.

“Being broadly aware of the threats to coral from a variety of sources, and after speaking to a number of scientific experts and understanding the harvesting practices then employed, we concluded that the threats to pink and red coral were serious enough to adopt an appropriately cautious position,” he added in a subsequent e-mail exchange.

Tiffany signed on as a sponsor when the nonprofit group SeaWeb, based in Maryland, started a “Too Precious to Wear” campaign to promote coral conservation in January 2008.

Yet not every jeweler sees the issue in the same terms. Robert M. Taylor, president and chief executive of Maui Divers Jewelry, the largest jewelry retailer in the Hawaiian Islands, said he believed in coral conservation. However, he took issue with the “Too Precious to Wear” campaign’s core message that corals are in crisis, suffering from high consumer demand and, hence, should not be used in jewelry.

“It’s the opposite of what we feel,” he said. “Precious coral is too precious not to wear.”

Unlike the Corallium, or pink and red coral, which is the target of the SeaWeb campaign, the precious black coral that makes up the bulk of Maui Divers’ coral sales is already listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as Cites. The listing does not ban the sale of black coral; it does, however, mandate a strict reporting regime designed to prove that trade is “not detrimental” to the species’ survival in the wild.

“We have a model for black coral developed in 1976, adopted as a state management plan and enforced by the government for 35 years,” said Richard W. Grigg, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii. “We know where it is and how much we’ve taken.”

Data on the coral populations in the Mediterranean and Pacific are much less complete. Part of that can be attributed to scale. The global black coral trade is estimated at 5 tons annually, compared with 30 to 50 tons for red and pink coral, the most valuable and widely traded deep sea coral species.

Scientists do not know how much of the slow-growing red and pink coral now exists in underwater stocks; but they point to declines in known fishing zones as evidence that it has been critically depleted. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the harvest of Corallium from the Mediterranean fell to 38.9 tons in 2007 from 98 tons in 1978, while catches in the Pacific dropped to 12.5 tons in 2007 from a peak of 370 tons in 1966.

“In the ’50s, the Italians were harvesting incredible amounts of coral, tons of it in very shallow water,” said Georgios Tsounis, a marine biologist who has studied Mediterranean coral since 2002. The result of such activity, he said, has transformed the seabed from “a forest landscape into a grassland.”