Algeria’s Red Gold

Despite the fact that man had been making use of it for hundreds of years, when scholars eventually decided it was time to classify the red coral from the Mediterranean, there was a lot of argument as to whether or not it was a vegetable or a mineral. Its striking color has caused it to be used for a variety of purposes including that of ornamentation, art, medicine and money. Today it is mainly used for jewellery and it is viewed as being so precious that it has been dubbed ‘Red Gold’.

It was not until the 18th century that scientists came to understand that coral was the skeletal remains of a living organism. Initially many thought that coral was a form of plant – a sort of underwater tree if you will – and that the small, brightly colored creatures known as polyps that create it were flowers. These polyps live in colonies and they secrete the calcareous deposits known as coral in an effort to protect themselves. Their coral branches can reach a length of 10-12 inches and are usually only one color though they may exhibit several different shades of that color.

Red coral may be formed on any solid surface up to a depth of 800 feet (250m) given the right circumstances. Preferably the sea water needs to be calm, unpolluted, warm and have a fairly high level of salinity. Thus it is generally only found in the waters of the Mediterranean and countries such as Algeria can benefit greatly from reaping its beautiful bounty. It can also be found off the coast of a variety of other countries such as Albania, France, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Tunisia and Yugoslavia. There are also instances of red coral growing in the Atlantic off Cape Verde and Morocco.

Coral has long been prized by humankind for its incredibly beauty and rarity – red coral even more so. It has been used decoratively by kings and pharaohs, treasured as priceless family heirlooms and looked upon as the source of a cure for all sorts of ailments. However the exceptional value of this brightly colored byproduct of the sea has caused some to exploit coral deposits to the point of destroying the creatures that create it. Pollution has also become a serious cause for concern. If those living in Algeria and other areas where precious red coral is known to grow can find ways to protect the delicate creatures within, they may just be able to encourage big enough colonies to allow for a sustainable and continuous harvest of this ‘red gold’.