THE CORAL ARCHITECT
At one time or another most people have seen a piece of coral, either in the form of a child's pretty plaything, or a girl's trinket, or as an attractive curiosity in a museum. From remote times coral has been valued as bracelets, chains, and brooches, as a personal ornament, or for decorative purposes. In bygone ages it was regarded as endowed with certain mystic and sacred properties, and for this reason became exceedingly popular with many classes as a potent charm against evil spirits, and accidents, serious illnesses, or misfortunes of any kind. The Romans, it is recorded, used to hang beads of red coral on the cradles and round the necks of infants to "preserve and fasten their teeth", and also to save them from the "falling sickness”. In China, a special kind of coral always commands a high price, because this is in great demand for buttons of office worn by mandarins. There, too, coral is powdered and used as a medicine and also as a cure for inflammation of the eye.
Coral is, after pearls, the handsomest and most valuable of all the products obtained from the sea. It will polish with the brilliancy of a gem and shine like garnet. It is very durable. Some of the larger branches of coral are used for carving, and from the workshops of Naples, Genoa, and Leghorn, in Italy, comes the finest and most artistic work in carved coral.
Worm eaten coral beads find special favour with the natives of India, owing to a superstitious belief that gods dwell in the little recesses or cavities.
What is coral? Little was known for a long time about the habits of the coral, its classification, and its method of growth. But now that the coral has been closely studied, we are in possession of a number of scientific facts. The coral that you see exhibited on a shelf in a museum, or forming a charming necklace or other ornament, is merely the skeleton of a once-living animal. This skeleton is as hard and brittle as stone, and is the part of the coral that is used for commercial purposes. In the natural state, the skeleton is covered with a soft substance that, when fresh, can be scraped off quite easily with the nails of one's fingers. There are holes in the soft portion of the coral, out of which protrude little flower-like arrangements, which have been compared to sea nettles. The coral polyp, as it has been called, is not a flower, but a small animal. Food is conveyed to it by means of the currents which pass through the pores or small openings.
The structure of these little creatures is thus very simple; they present the appearance of a pocket or open purse, the mouth being surrounded with tiny tentacles, or feelers, and conducting to the central portion of the polyp the food that is carried by the current that enters it.