Opulence of the Benin culture is very renowned and has always been so. Benin royalty are known for their love of red coral beads in fashion, this has always been to signify abundant wealth of the Great Kingdom to the rest of the world.
Corals are the skeletal remains of marine animals which can take thousands of years to be fully grown (5000 -8000+ years), growing 5 to 25 millimetres each year. Coral reefs are currently protected due to overexploitation and damages caused by humans and other factors such as global warning and disease. Coral with her cousin the Pearls are both rare gemstones, they are chemically very similar and are mostly calcium bicarbonate deposited by marine invertebrates. Corals can be red, pink, white or black; red coral being most priced.
Used in jewellery, coral can be polished and fashioned into beautiful and exquisite beads. This attribute, makes coral beads very expensive particularly as they are very rare and protected. Coral which are used for jewellery making come mainly from the Mediterranean Sea, Pacific and Eastern Atlantic oceans. Coral beads in many cultures also have religious significance such as beliefs that they bring good luck to the wearer.
Benin Bronze plaques show evidence that the king’s complete royal regalia were made of red coral beads. Only the king could wear the complete regalia which must have been very expensive as these were bought from Spanish and Portuguese traders to the Kingdom. In today’s money, this would have cost billions of Nigerian naira to make complete royal regalia consisting of beaded crown, full coral beads outfit, bracelets, rings and necklaces. This rare gemstone regalia left no one in any doubt about His Majesty’s wealth. Other royalties too e.g. the chiefs were revered as wealthy individuals since coral beads were very expensive to purchase. Benin queens and chiefs wore less beaded outfits.
One real coral bead necklace (may not even be 100% coral) today could cost up to 15,000 Euros equivalent to 2,836,821.48 Naira; this is almost three million Nigerian naira.
The Benin Punitive expedition fire of 1897 destroyed much of the original coral gemstones held by the Benin Royal palace. Some have since been replaced but at exorbitant prices since the King no longer has trade monopoly with foreign traders and international trade restrictions apply today.
Another development in coral beads fashion and cultural awareness is that these days coral beads wearing is no longer limited to just the royal family and Benin nobility, everyone who can afford it kits up in the full outfit for celebration of cultural events like wedding, burial ceremonies, etc.
The question is, if coral beads are rare and expensive, how is everyone who can afford it able to do so in Nigeria today? The answer lies in synthetic coral jewellery manufacturing which is now a big business in the country and abroad, producing genuine looking coral beads to sell at reasonable prices to the emerging and established middle class and professionals of Nigeria. In my view, this is a very positive development since it keeps the Benin culture alive and unifies the next generation in dress and fashion practices.
Captain Bacon in his book Benin, City of Blood (1897) stated that ‘Silver there was none, and gold there was none, and the coral was of little value. In fact the only things of value were the tusks and bronze work.’ (page92). These were the main items the British saved and looted from the palace but if only they had known the true value of coral, they would not have destroyed them in the fire, perhaps they knew that the cost of maintaining the coral beads would have proved exorbitant over time unlike metal and ivory ware and this consideration prevented them seeing any different. Shame that (or not).
Anyhow, coral beads fashion is here to stay; Benin culture lives. Long live the Red Coral Kingdom!