Onto the third letter of our A-Z, C, there are few to choose from in the C category such as carnelian, chalcedony, chrysoprase, citrine and chrysoberyl but we’ve decided on coral. It is believed to be one of the oldest forms of gemstone jewellery with some pieces dating back as far as 23,000 BC.
Corallium rubrum, the red coral which is mostly found in the Mediterranean along the Italian coast, was most often used by Europeans for ‘haute joaillerie’. The finest coral jewellery can range from pale peach blossom hues to deep fiery reds. Red, pink, orange and black are some of the most sought after colours in coral. Alongside the Mediterranean Sea coral can be found off the coast of Hawaii, near the Strait of Gibraltar, the Cape Verde islands, off the coast of Portugal and in and around Japan and Taiwan. Coral can be sculpted into roses, carved into cameos, smoothed into cabochons and squared or rounded into links or beads - all in all coral is incredibly versatile. Is it any wonder when the sea has provided creatives with inspiration for years? Songs, paintings, sculptures, architecture and jewellery all feature objects, shapes or views found from the sea. It’s no wonder that coral found a place in these creations and is still popular today.
The part of coral which is used for jewellery is not actually the living organism but rather its carbonate secretions, which form the structure that the polyps live on. In 77 AD Pliny the Elder, Roman philosopher, wrote in depth about coral in one of the earliest encyclopaedias; Natrualis Historia. Pliny describes the most valued coral as the reddest and most branchy. Pliny also describes how during this period the Gauls (a group of Celtics) used coral as ornamentation on their swords, shields and helmets. He also writes about how coral was used to quiet tempests and unsure that the wearer would not be struck by lightning. The power of coral also followed into medicinal purposes where people believed that reducing the coral to powder and then injecting it would aid with bladder problems, fever, ulcers and scarring. Besides using coral for aid, it has also been used in jewellery for centuries and is an ancient practice. Coral has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and prehistoric European burial sites. The use of coral in jewellery can be found in Tibet as early as the 17th century. Families would hang coral around their child’s neck to protect them from illness and danger. Women also wore coral to charm against sterility.
The ancient Chinese viewed coral as a symbol of longevity and official promotion. The ancient Greeks believed coral had the power to contract witchcraft and protect abasing storms and robbery. Coral used as an amulet was a belief that spread throughout the world. Coral was attributed to have great amulet powers. It is believed this is from Greek mythology as many believed coral originated from the spurts of blood gushing from Medusa’s head after it was severed by Perseus. Many believed coral to protect from magical spells. The beliefs were particular thought of in regards to children. Perhaps this is why we see so many portraits of children holding a eve of a coral from that time, especially in places like Spain and Italy. For example La infanta Ana Mauricia de Austria, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, 1602. Not only protecting children, coral was believed to foster creativity and optimism as well as bringing inner peace. People believed that coral would help the blood flow.
During the 1920s European designers of Art Deco jewellery used coral as a way introduce colour into their creations, mixing it with onyx, diamonds or lapis lazuli in everything to pendants, rings, brooches and bracelets. Coral saw a surge in retro jewellery during the 1950s particularly in brands such as Cartier. And in the 1970s raw coral, polished but left in it’s natural branch form, was a hot and upcoming accessory for hippies. Jewellers such as Boucheron carved dark pink roses and orange red cabochons that they set with textured gold and diamonds. Today, houses like Dior and Cartier continue to use coral in their designs but concern over it’s scarcity have led many jewellers to reconsider. Some companies like Tiffany have stopped working with the material altogether. Until coral is used more widely again and sustainably we suggest buying antique coral pieces, like many of our coral collection.
If you are lucky enough to own coral jewellery we would suggest being very careful with it as coral only rates between 2.5-4 on the Mohs Scale. Cleaning your coral jewellery is very important and must be done properly. To clean simply wipe gently with a soft damp cloth. Store your pieces separately to your other jewellery to prevent scratches.