One of the earliest ornaments known to man, coral’s tropical beauty stands unique among the gems of the world. Because of its exotic shapes and wide variety of colors, coral jewelry was a valuable form of currency to both coastal and inland cultures, from Rome and Egypt to China, India, Tibet, and Native American tribes. Victorian artisans used coral extensively as beads or delicate carvings in all types of ornamentation. In modern times, many countries hold coral in high regard as the traditional gift for a thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.
Found in every ocean, corals are a diverse class of minute invertebrate marine animals who form elaborate colonies as each generation builds onto the empty exoskeletons of the last. The characteristic shape of each variety leads to fanciful names such as whip, bird’s-nest, brain, or even hairy mushroom coral. The coral varieties used for jewelry typically have branch or fan-like structures. To reflect the rising environmental consciousness in today’s consumers, harvesting methods have changed to be more sustainable & responsible. Divers select individual coral specimens for harvesting, being careful not to deplete any section of the reef past recovery and not to disturb the rest of the local ecosystem. Precious coral can be divided into two categories: calcium-based and protein-based.
The calcium-based, or calcareous, category encompasses varieties with color ranging from white through pink and orange to red. Their internal structure has a wavy, fibrous appearance. Red, pink and orange are the most valuable shades; the most vivid red color is found in the Mediterranean Sea, but these colors are also harvested in the South China Sea and off the coasts of Japan and Hawaii. Bamboo coral is an aptly named common variety with a very interesting segmented structure, found in white to gray colors deep in the Pacific Ocean. Color descriptions for these corals are often very creative. For example, medium-light pink tones are often called “salmon” and highly prized intense red shades are “oxblood.” Since Italy is a historically significant center for coral harvesting & fashioning, many terms are taken from the Italian, such as “rosso scuro” or “carbonetto” for dark red and “pelle d’angelo” (angel skin) for light pink.
In contrast to the diverse calcareous corals, the protein-based category is comprised of only two varieties: black and golden coral. These are the rarest and most valuable corals, found growing mostly in the deep, dark waters off the ledges of Hawaii’s coastline where their harvest is highly regulated to prevent extinction. Golden and black corals are extremely long-lived and slow-growing; some black colonies have been dated to over four thousand years old, and some gold colonies are believed to be over five thousand years old. Surprisingly, a living black coral colony isn’t black, but is covered by white, yellow, red, orange or green living tissue, which in turn is covered in little spines. Only when it is collected and fashioned is the characteristic black or dark brown skeleton revealed. Protein-based corals display a tree-ring type of growth pattern. When polished, the golden variety often shows a distinctive, enticing tiger’s-eye sheen that heightens its value & desirability.
Coral’s use in decoration is varied. Very attractive strands are often assembled by polishing small branches to a high gloss, drilling holes through them, and stringing them as natural-form beads. Alternatively, coral is cut into more traditional bead shapes or cabochons for setting into rings and other jewelry, or carved into cameos and one-of-a-kind statuettes.
As with many other gems, coral is often enhanced in various ways to make it more beautiful or more durable. For example, white bamboo coral is regularly dyed pink or red to provide an affordable alternative to the rarer naturally colored varieties. Dye can also be used to intensify the existing color of pale specimens. Some pieces need a little assistance to reach their full potential due to uneven color or a porous texture that would make the material susceptible to discoloration from oils & chemicals. In this case, the common treatment involves some combination of bleaching out the unevenness, re-coloring the material, and sealing its surface with an application of colorless wax or plastic. All of these treatments are accepted by the jewelry industry as being durable and stable, comparable to staining & sealing wood furniture to make it more suited for everyday use.
When selecting high-quality coral jewelry, look for pieces with an even color and a finely grained surface. Avoid pieces with distracting spots, cavities, cracks, or blotchy color.
We recommend caring for your coral jewelry with the same methods used for pearls, since both the conchiolin protein of the black & golden corals and the calcium carbonate of the calcareous varieties are also primary ingredients of pearls. Therefore, avoid exposing your coral jewelry to strong light for long periods of time, or to high heat. Always remove it before working with chemicals or any activity that would immerse it in water. Keep it safe and clean by putting it on after applying cosmetics, perfume, and hairspray. If your coral does require cleaning, gently wipe it with a soft, moderately damp cloth, then allow it to air-dry completely before storing. The best storage conditions are at room temperature with normal humidity; organic gems should never be stored long-term in dry environments like bank safety-deposit boxes.
Since coral is heat-sensitive, repairs to jewelry containing this gem can often be a delicate process. Our in-house certified bench jeweler is an expert in all types of jewelry repair, allowing us to assist you with even the most difficult tasks. Whether you have a coral ring to be resized or a necklace in need of restringing, bring it to Fontana Jeweler, conveniently located on the west end of Lake Geneva. Our GIA Graduate Gemologist can help you determine whether your family heirloom is natural coral or a simulated gem and provide an appraisal for your insurance company. Our extensive showrooms feature beautiful coral designs in sterling silver and gold, perfect for every taste and budget. Visit us any time Monday through Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm.