Greek legend has it that coral grew from the spilled blood of Medusa Gorgon, defeated by Perseus. One type of bright red coral is called a “gorgonid.
This material is devoted to the physical properties and use in jewelry of this most living of stones.
The origin and physical properties of coral
Coral is the fossilized skeleton of coral polyps. These bioherms are called “anthozoa,” which means “flower plants.” They are tiny living creatures that live in colonies. There are about 6,000 species of bioherms, some with calcareous and protein skeletons. Their clusters form coral reefs and even islands.
Thin calcite needles form a unique coral structure that cannot be imitated. The color palette includes shades of red and pink, white, black, and even a rare blue. The pattern can be striped or zoned and has a cellular structure.
It is a brittle material – only 3.5-4 hardness on the Mohs scale. It consists of calcium carbonate and organic protein, so it is not resistant to acids and high temperatures. It is worth taking these properties into consideration when taking care of your jewelry.
Coral in jewelry: history and present times
Coral has been used for jewelry since Ancient Egypt, thanks to its easy processing. It served as a talisman in different countries. For example, in ancient Greece and Rome, it was believed to protect against evil spells, storms and disarm poisons.
Coral not only protected but also enchanted. These stones have managed to gain a foothold in jewelry tradition even in places far from their origins. For example, since the 17th century, they became part of the traditional jewelry of the Native Americans. The Spanish conquerors introduced them to this material.
Coral beads are a characteristic feature of Ukrainian folk costume, which served as a marker of wealth. By the number of strings and the size of beads, one could determine the family’s prosperity. As a rule such beads were made by girls themselves from the purchased beads. Read more about Ukrainian folk jewelry in our separate article.
Of course, the coral jewelry was spread near the places of extraction. First of all – in the Mediterranean Sea, on the coast of Portugal, West Africa, Hawaii, around Japan and Taiwan.
Coral jewelry was made famous in Italy. Particularly impressive are the intricate narrative cameos.
These stones were often used in jewelry in the 17th-19th centuries. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was all about turning to Ancient Greece in fashion. In turn, a little later, the Victorian era paid a lot of attention to symbolism, and coral is rich in stories and associations.
Coral embellishments, imitations and substitutes
Like any jewelry, coral is treated and ennobled. For example, they are filled with wax to remove any irregularities. Polishing is used to add luster, as natural coral has a matte surface. For a familiar bright hue, corals are tinted.
There is nothing wrong with such operations, especially if the buyer has been warned about them. They are worth taking into consideration when taking care of them.
Because of the high price, corals are imitated and faked. Dyed hovlite and quartzite are most often used for this purpose. These two minerals are heavier. The easiest and cheapest imitations of coral are made from plastic, glass and resin.
There has been an attempt to synthesize coral. In 1976, Pierre Gilson created a plausible imitation coral from natural calcite with dye. It has a similar composition, color and density to coral, but without the characteristic structure.
As with other natural stones, coral is not uniform in color. Its natural coloring is distinguished by the transition of shades, which often distinguishes it from imitation.
How to care for coral jewelry
The softness of coral makes it easy to handle, but at the same time sensitive to damage. It crumbles, poorly tolerates temperature jumps, high humidity and excessive dryness. It is adversely affected by alcohol. The ideal place to store jewelry with this stone is a tissue paper in an open basket.
General recommendations for coral are also relevant: protect it from shocks and chemical attack, do not use abrasives in cleaning, and put it on at the end of the toilet after using cosmetics.
You can read about the nuances of storing and caring for other stones in our other article.
The ethics of coral using
The popularity of coral in jewelry has taken its toll on the ecosystem and led to coral’s extinction. New coral jewelry raises many questions about its ethics along with ivory, fur, butterfly wings and bird feathers. Because of these factors, vintage and antique pieces are increasing in value every year.
In addition to past unsustainable use, coral reefs are also suffering because of poor ecology and climate change.
Some coral species are endangered and protected by law. More than 180 countries have restricted exports of red corals harvested after 1969.
In 2002, Tiffany & Co. stopped producing jewelry and to this day cooperates with organizations that support the environment.
So, having served as a talisman for people for centuries, coral reefs themselves now need to be protected and preserved.