Thursday, April 05, 2012

Corralling Coral

We begin, innocently enough, with the idea to lay hold of some beads, in order to make garlands for someone special. 

She likes red. 

It says so, right there, in the Aryatarakurukullakalpa

It says a good many other things, besides,  so while we are planning the garlands, we think to string a mala or two, just to be comprehensive.

As it turns out, we are thinking way too small.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Tibetans and coral.

We cannot pretend to know just how and when the custom of wearing coral was introduced to Tibet. Informed speculation would credit Muslim traders, along the old Silk Route. In that regard, it is interesting to note that the principal coral dealers in Tibet for the past couple of centuries at least have always been Chinese Muslims. 

Regardless who is responsible, coral caught on with a vengeance.

Ahmad ibn Yusuf Al Tifaschi's Azhar al Afkarfi Djawahir al Ahdjar "Best Thoughts on the Best of Stones," written in about 1243 C.E., informs us --
"Coral is found in a place called Marsa al Kharaz in the sea of Africa [Tunisia]. It is also found in the sea of Europe [Mediterranean], but most of it comes from Marsa al Karaz, from where it is brought to the East, Yemen, India, and all countries. In no other place are larger, bigger, or better quantities found."
Upon further study, we learn that coral from Africa was taken to Alexandria, which was then a center of the gem trade. There, after polishing, coral acquired a value "three times" its wholesale cost at source.

This is important, because it helps us identify the probable first sources of coral introduced to Tibet -- at least according to thirteenth century observation -- which, in turn, tells us how the Tibetan traffic developed.

If it were usual to refer, with pride, to our gems as they seem to be, we might say, "Wow! Nice carbon he gave you," or, "I just love that aluminum oxide!" People would know we were talking about diamonds, and rubies, respectively. In the case of coral, we would be proud of our calcium carbonate, as expressed by the skeletal remains of marine animals called coral polyps; having a trigonal crystal structure, a hardness of 3 on the Mohs scale, a specific gravity of 2.68, and a refractive index of 1.49 to 1.66.

Our thirteenth century Arab friend wrote, "Coral resembles a mineral in its body and resembles a plant in its soul." He did not seem to know that coral involved a living being, although he did suspect this about sponges for example, saying, "Likewise, some animals are formed in the water that belong midway between the animal and the mineral worlds... ."

The "living being" aspect of coral -- among other, political and sociological motivations -- now has some young Tibetan ecologists up in arms. They are struggling to start a "Quit Coral" movement. Right off the bat, they are encountering resistance from Western ecologists, who point out that coral reefs are dying not because of harvesting, but because of pollution. Indeed, all the past, present, and future coral in Tibet does not equal one day's worth of the poison pouring into the world's waters -- maybe not even one minute's worth.

Further, coral achieves its color by means of intracellular endosymbionts. It is ocean warming that is responsible for what are known as "mass coral bleaching events," where red coral suddenly turns white. So, the worldwide shortage of red coral is not due to any Tibetan cultural preferences, but to global warming, and a variety of other environmental factors. "Bleaching" is seen in the foreground, below, with normal coral in the background.

Generally, when we speak about the cultural, or socio-economic aspects of coral, it is red coral of which we speak. For example: Although coral is called out by name in the Aryatarakurukullakalpa, it is arguably the coral's red color that is involved, as distinct from coral's component status as calcium carbonate.

As red coral becomes rare, then of course, people begin to find ways of counterfeiting. Using calcium and other materials, the Gilson firm, in France, has come up with a laboratory-made simulation that seems quite close to the real thing. The hardness is about 3.5, and the refractive index is 1.55: right in the middle of natural coral's range. Both Gilson coral and real coral react the same way to acids, but Gilson gives a brownish streak on the testing plate, whereas genuine coral leaves white.

There are also numbers of other ways to simulate the real thing. Red coral improves with exposure to certain oils, so soaking white coral with dyed oils is a common method. Barium sulfate with plastic has been used, giving a refractive index of 1.58, a specific gravity of 2.33, and a hardness of about 3. Dyed marble is also seen, as is dyed howlite, glass, and all sorts of other things. Most of what we see coming out of China these days is dyed -- with greater or lesser scientific control -- white coral. With the cheap grades, sometimes the color literally peels off. The better grades are color enhanced pink coral from Japan. It would take a national forensic laboratory to identify all of the many dyes being used.

So, what does the "real thing" cost? The above mala went off at auction in Australia for USD $1,850, despite being what most would consider a "got up" item of recent provenance.

Here is a splendid example, sold on the London market by Garuda Trading. Correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to recall this went for around USD $4,700. They have a few others in the USD $2,000 range, but not for long. In the United States, Potalagate also has a few, at USD $3,200 to $4,400.

Finally -- and as a favor to loyal readers of DTBA -- here is an absolute bargain at USD $1,500, currently available on eBay (again, really not for long). If I had any money left, I would buy this one myself. Since a hospital bill came in the mail today, I will let the dream evaporate naturally.

Which brings us back to the issue of color versus constituent. According to text, our particular friend will also accept lotus seed beads (make that red lotus seeds), and even rock crystal beads. It isn't spelled out explicitly, but I also suspect rubies might be acceptable.

You could argue -- and many have -- that mantra is mantra and plastic beads are fine. I have been in situations when all I had were knotted strings, or my fingers. Nobody kicked me off the wavelength.

But, part of the energy surrounding such matters is, quite simply, taking the time, trouble, and care to search out specifics. If you are able to do this, your world becomes immediately larger: more things become possible. This is something that seems difficult to explain, yet is easily experienced in practice. I suppose we are once more talking about the relationship we try to cultivate with what we regard as the sacred aspect of our lives. Perhaps that could be more properly stated in terms of "steps" we take in the process of cultivation -- until we come to realize that "sacred" is without definite aspect.

Which is not to say that it is without the possibility of multiple aspect. Take medicinal coral for example.

Once we open up to such possibility, we come to gain a certain confidence -- a certain stability. We do not decorate "idols" in Buddhism. Instead, we sharpen an environment. This acts both as cause and condition. There are no "gods" demanding this or that substance. Instead, there are landmarks, along well worn paths.

So, something about coral today.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

2 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

I can't think of a finer use for coral. (LL)

Om jewelry said...

Great post! And such a great information about corals!