Precious Coral Art
Japanese land produces very few mineral gem stones. Surrounded by the sea, however, it is a world leader in supplying the most beautiful “red corals” (Corallium Rubrum) called “precious corals" for their rarity.   Kochi was the first to start harvesting coral and still boasts the largest volume of production in Japan. It is the center of the coral industry, including trading untreated coral. With its geographical advantages, Kochi nurtured the art of working with precious coral till it blossomed into a form unlike any other in the world. Crafting this rare resource, the artisans have brought out the natural beauty of coral, enhancing its expression, and with ever new experiments have developed an art world that is as wide and rich as the sea.
Common corals that form coral reefs spreading over shallow waters of the tropical and subtropical oceans grow quickly; they have a pumice-like structure and do not have a gloss even when polished. The corals that become the raw materials for precious coral grow over a long period of time in the deep sea, only in a very limited area of the world, such as the Mediterranean Sea and offshore Kochi. The beautiful luster of this coral that seems to shine from within, captures the hearts of many people. Historically, precious coral was produced only in the Mediterranean, prized as an extremely valuable treasure, and also brought to the East. Precious coral has been believed to have mystic powers throughout the Western world, and even in Buddhism, it is counted among the seven treasures. In early modern Japan, coral collected in the Mediterranean was imported to be made into ornaments for decorating hairpins and medicine boxes. The material was so precious back then that no one dared to sculpt it, but just enjoyed the beauty of the material for itself.

This situation changed completely at the end of the Edo period (1603-1868). After a fisherman from Tosa (Kochi) discovered high quality precious coral, its existence off the coast of Kochi became known.

Vibrant red coral called “akasango” is a native species that can only be collected off the Japan coast, and its beauty has been compared favorably to the Mediterranean coral. As a result, they began to harvest coral using nets in Kochi. After the Meiji period, the polished product of akasango known as "blood red coral” was so highly prized in Europe that it was called "Tosa”.

The sea around Kochi produces not only the brilliant crimson red corals, but also elegant peach colored “momoirosango” corals, and pure white “shirosango" corals.

This inspired the development of precious coral art in Kochi, and artisan began to carve objects such as figurines and Buddhist statues using coral. In the process of crafting precious coral art, the natural colors of these corals are respected, the color and luster, size and quality of each coral is taken into consideration.

Preliminary sketch
Precious corals that can be used for crafting are extremely expensive, especially for 'traditional carving' from a single lump of coral, the aim is to make as much out of the size of the skeleton as possible. With this in mind, the craftsman plans the sketch of the figure in accordance with shape of the coral, which is different for each piece.
After roughly carving the general shape of the sculpture, the artisan will then carve out the small details such as the eyes and clothing. Because precious corals are extremely hard, motorized routers are commonly used in modern times.
Polishing the precious coral that has grown for years in the deep sea brings out its luster. Depending on the piece, the extent of polishing is adjusted during the making process.  
Kochi’s precious coral has been collected in a sustainable fishing method that coexists with nature without exhausting the supply for more than 150 years since the end of the Edo period. The difficulty of collecting large coral, however, remains an issue even today, and in recent years the price of coral has continued to rise, influenced by the economic growth in China. As a result, the master carver Maekawa Taizan has been experimenting with a new technique of ‘parquetry carving’, where a variety of corals are assembled before carving. Also, they have devised a way to powder coral and use it as a pigment, which is being employed actively. This makes it possible to utilize the various colors and shapes of coral, while protecting the resources.
The art of sculpting precious coral has a relatively short history as a traditional craft having developed only since the Meiji period when coral was discovered in Kochi. On the other hand, this leaves a lot of room for further development, and highlights its proactive innovativeness. In recent years, experiments include enhancing the natural feel of the sculpture by incorporating “mushi coral,” with a rough surface eroded by the sea. The world of precious coral art is still growing.  
Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Credits: Story

Information & images provided by:
Maekawa Sango Kobo

Directed and text provided by:
・Murata Takashi (Osaka International University)

Photo by:
・Tsushima Shuhei
・Kadota Mikiya

English Translation by:
・Miyo Kurosaki Bethe

This exhibition is created by:
・Sugishima Tsubasa (Sugishima Tsubasa(Kyoto Women's University Department of Apparel and Space Design)

Project Directer:
・Maezaki Shinya (Kyoto Women's University)
・Yamamoto Masako (Ritsumeikan University)

Credits: All media
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