Italian Cameos from Torre Del Greco

The harvesting of coral in the coastal city of Torre del Greco dates back to at least the beginning of the 15th century. It was not until the 17th century though, that coral harvesting become the main town activity. The harvest was entirely sold to the Jewish community living in Leighorn and Genoa. But turning “red gold” into jewelry didn’t begin until 1805, when the King of Naples, Ferdinando IV, granted Paolo Bartolomeo Martin of Marseille, France, a 10-year monopoly on the manufacture of coral in Torre del Greco. At that moment an industry was born and “Torre del Greco” took off.

Hatpin 19th century. Red Coral. Collection del Museo Nazionale delle Arti e Tradizioni Popolari
Hatpin 19th century. Red Coral. Collection del Museo Nazionale delle Arti e Tradizioni Popolari.
Typical Street in Torre del Greco
Typical Street in Torre del Greco.

The inhabitants of Torre del Greco developed a technique using hand tools to engrave conch shells and hardened lava (lavic) to create cameos. The engravings, which have changed little over the years, are mainly relief sculptures, usually oval or round, that include portraits of women’s faces, mythological representations, flowers, animals, landscapes, and scenes of daily life in Torre del Greco. In 1878 a school was founded to ensure sufficient trained people were available to handle the increased demand. It is interesting to note that another hub in Europe dealing with cameos, and in particular gemstones and Agate objects blossomed in the same period in Germany: Idar-Oberstein.

History of Torre del Greco

The reference to a tower, may refer to a medieval lookout tower which once stood on the coast, but is no longer extant. The people are sometimes called Corallini because of the plentiful coral in the nearby sea, and because the city has been a major producer of Coral jewelry and Cameo brooches since the 19th Century. “Torre Del Greco” was a popular summer resort town for wealthy Italians beginning in the 19th Century and continuing into the early 20th Century. Many wealthy families and even Italian Nobility, built elaborate summer palaces on the outskirts of the town, among the most notable of these is the Palazzo Materazzo.

Torre Del Greco was known for it’s Cafe’s and Eateries during it’s heyday, particularly the “Gran Cafe Palumbo” a large Art Neuveaux style Cafe which supplied hungry tourists and locals with all manner of gelato, pastries, food, and Coffee and had an extensive outdoor pavilion. The famous Italian comedian Toto, was among those who made Torre Del Greco their annual summer retreat. The reason for Torre Del Greco’s popularity as a resort town, was it’s beaches and the bucolic setting of lush farmland and Vinyards, as well as the vicinity of Mt. Vesuvius.

Cameo and Coral Jewelry Industry in Torre del Greco

Today the city of rolling hills in the province of Naples and in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius is the hub of the coral and cameo jewelry world, with approximately 350 companies and 2,600 workers directly involved in turning coral into objects of beauty. About 75 percent of the city’s production is exported. Its largest markets are Japan, the United States, and Europe. Annual income from the trade is roughly $222 million.

Torre del Greco 19th Century Turtoise Shell Comb
19th Century Turtoise Shell Comb, With 11 Coral Cameos, Gold Acanthus Leaves and Gold Base

Nearly all the companies that toil in this art form are family owned and very small. More than 60 percent operate with no more than three people. Most work independently, but in 1978 some of them organized into the Associazione Produttori Coralli Cammei e Materie Affini (National Association Coral Producers, Analogous Cameos and Materials, aka Assocoral). In September and October of 2006, this organization held a bicentennial celebration of the local coral and cameo industry with a museum exhibition, an international design competition, and a fashion show.