We have just toured a very special museum, for entry by invitation, a museum of coral jewellery and artifacts created since 1805, and especially since 1855 when the house of Ascione was created in Torre del Greco. It is still there, one of the proud companies in Italy that have survived the trials of military and economic war through the creation of beauty.
We sit on leather topped square stools at a glass table on the second level of the Galleria Umberto 1st in Napoli. Directly in front, across the road, you read ‘REAL TEATRO’ and then below it ‘DI S. CARLO’ – one of the great Opera theatres of the world from the time of the Bourbon Kings, San Carlo has stood since 1737.
Ascione jewellery is today as it was then nearly 160 years ago, beautifully fashioned deep water coral. Originally, from about 1400, the coral from the waters near Sardinia, Sicily and North Africa, was harvested by men from Torre del Greco, on the road from Napoli to Sorrento. In the renaissance, the coral was shipped from Torre del Greco to Marseilles, Livorno and Genoa where jewellers fashioned the ‘antlers’ of the coral. In 1805, an entrepreneurial Frenchman gained a royal decree to allow him to exclusively produce the coral jewellery in Torre del Greco.
As the years passed, the Italian craftsmen and women developed their own skill base and established jewellery manufacturing studios also importing carving skills from Rome and goldsmithing from Florence. The oldest factory in the town is that of the Ascione family, not just manufacturers and purveyors of beauty from coral, but also proud historians of the art and craft.
The coral represents the ideal that only God can create perfection. Tiny spots and changes of colour denote the authenticity. Different to shallow water coral, these ‘antlers’ retain their color, reds, pinks and whites, over the years. Seeing pieces nearly 200 years old still radiant, gives the assurance that these masters of coral produce ornaments to see the centuries. In the window of the museum, you find black material that is actually not coral but is a black underwater ‘bush’ growing among the coral.
The museum shows a painting of Napoleon’s sister adorned in coral jewellery, as well as marvelous coral carvings. The wedding dress and coral jewels of the grandmother of the current family are proudly displayed, the lace as resplendent as the coral. The living colour of the coral brings back to life the years gone by and entraps you in a desire to share a piece of the living history.