The coral-processing company, Antonino De Simone, has been in business for 185 years, present in the Mediterranean area and in ethnic markets around the world
There are some unusual celebrations, which are hardly ever recognised. For example: hands up those of you who knew that your 35th wedding anniversary is called your ‘coral wedding’. And then there are celebrations such as those of Antonino De Simone, a leader in the coral industry, which organised huge festivities on a little-known date. On November 29th last year, the company from Torre del Greco celebrated its 185th anniversary with exhibitions, theatrical events and plans for the future: “I really wanted this moment to mark a great, long history of dedication”, said Gioa De Simone, 32 years old and at the helm for the last five years, together with her cousin, Michele Palomba.
It was in 1830 that the firm’s founder, Antonino, started to develop an idea brought from Marseilles by Paul Bartholomew Martin at the beginning of the century. In 1805, Martin had obtained a ten-year permit from King Ferdinand IV (later renewed by both Joseph Bonaparte and Murat) to open a factory in the town at the foot of Vesuvius. In return, the rulers demanded that Martin had to establish a school for young apprentices, creating one of the brightest opportunities for Italian jewellery. “The fact is that the people from Torre, unlike the clichéd image of this area, have always been renowned for their hard-working, conscientious approach”, explained Gioia. The experiences of her family confirm this reputation: in 2011, the company was among 150 historic Italian companies honoured for more than a century of activity. This was well-earned recognition for the tenacity and expertise of a family which has handed down their passion for an ancient craft over six generations.
Gioia also adheres to another tradition in the coral-working business: the role of women. Even in the early nineteenth century, it was mainly women who worked with this gift from the sea. You can see a faint pride in her eyes, while all around you in the company there is a huge predominance of women. The workshop is in Corso Avezzana, buried in an intricate maze of narrow streets in old Torre. Between the customers and the workforce, it seems rather like a harem without a sultan. The result is a highly efficient operation: punctual, practical, and not too chatty. In addition to its sales function, the building is set up like a museum: “We are very keen on teaching, and we open the company for free visits to everyone, from school trips to tourist groups. We do this is because we want to spread a knowledge of living coral in all its aspects. There is a lot of ignorance about this, and companies like ours are perceived as predators. In fact, the opposite is true: we are the first to wish that the environment which furnishes our chosen material is in a good state of health”.
The exhibition includes some unique pieces: Nigerian crowns, Indian necklaces and Ecuadorian bracelets. The coral which is made into jewellery grows almost exclusively in the Mediterranean, but has always been used as a means of exchange for valuable articles. Relationships with the Far East, for example, developed around bartering silk and spices for coral. However, it is also to be found in South America, as a result of oversaturation following the emergence of Ferdinandea Island from the sea in 1831. The lava burned great areas of barrier reef, and soon so much of this material was accumulated as to cause a collapse in its value; with the result that Sciacca coral became ubiquitous. There are stories from near and far, all painted in that red which has always fascinated mankind. Many regard it as having charismatic properties: “A German researcher visited us for a month to study the qualities of its colour”.
The 185th anniversary marks a new phase for Antonino De Simone, as Gioia explained: “Relatively recently we’ve ventured into the finished product, which now constitutes 20% of our work”. And then China with its runaway trends has also joined the game, devouring market shares for a year before moving on to new, hectic forms of consumption. “We are a small company with the problems of a multinational”,Gioia continued, smiling. But one can see she is not afraid of the future. For this reason she wants to celebrate. So she decided to call upon a big name, with Moni Ovadia starring in a recital during the anniversary celebrations: “My father was very close to this story-teller. They met by chance on a train, and until his death there was a magical friendship between the two of them”.