NEW YORK – Although coral reefs resemble underwater branched plants, they are actually colonies of tiny organisms living on limestone exoskeletons of their ancestors. Precious coral, as the decorative type is commonly known, ranges from pale pink to deep red. Since it is colorfast and polishes to a high sheen, this gem-like matter harvested mainly along the Mediterranean coasts of France, Italy, Spain, Tunisia and Algeria has been esteemed for its beauty since ancient times. It was also prized for its purported restorative and protective powers.
The ancient Greeks, believing that coral transformed from plant to stone when exposed to air, endowed it with wondrous powers. Many Greeks carried coral amulets to deter ghosts and witches, deflect lightening, neutralize poisons, avert shipwrecks, cure scorpion stings and repel curses.
Other Greeks believed that coral was born of blood. As the legend goes, when mighty Perseus beheaded the snake-haired monster Medusa, her blood, as it seeped into seaweed, hardened into red coral. So, amulets featuring Medusa’s likeness were deemed especially protective. In addition, people reputedly relied on powdered coral to cure internal bleeding, diseases of the spleen and bladder ailments.
Romans, too, believed that coral held therapeutic powers. Besides using it to treat snake bites and arouse libido, scores of them used powdered coral to quell life-threatening blood loss. Romans also draped pieces of coral around their children’s necks to guard them from harm.
From the first century AD onward, coral traders plied “coral routes” to the Arabian Peninsula and through Central Asia to the Far East. Eventually, communities they served integrated this valuable “red gold” into their local traditions.
Berber women in Morocco, for example, favored bracelets, ear ornaments and brooches featuring delicate coral beading or inclusions. Many also wore lavish necklaces or filigreed silver amulets enhanced with amber, silver beading, metallic coins and bits of coral.
The Chinese, who perfected the art of hardstone carving, have long prized coral for its rarity and beauty. Artisans favored it because of its softness, which made it easy to “work” in fashioning pieces of wearable or decorative art. This craft rose to new heights during the Qing Dynasty, (1644-1912) when artisans, under Imperial patronage, carved fine, red coral figurines, jewelry and sculptures as royal tributes and ornaments. Their finest works, large, organic pieces featuring incredibly detailed images, frequently embodied auspicious wishes for good luck, wealth or longevity.
Coral jewelry was especially fashionable during the Victorian era, when British women embraced ostentatiously carved cameos, densely designed floral trinkets, and flashy gold, diamond or sapphire-set brooches resembling beetles, bugs or dragonflies. Yet, British journalist G.A. Sala noted in 1868 that coral jewelry “carelessly selected, clumsily set and ignorantly arranged … may become one of the most vulgar and unsightly of all ornaments.” Today, happily, Victorian coral jewelry, which is widely collected, is available in abundance.
Spanish conquistadors introduced fine, red Mediterranean coral to the American Southwest in the 16th century, possibly as rosary beads or ornaments on najas, silver pendants hung on horses’ foreheads to avert the Evil Eye.
It was not until much later that Navajo, Hopi and Zuni craftsmen began gem-working commercially. Their inlay work, delicately fashioned from coral combined with bits of turquoise, mother-of-pearl and black jet, often depict traditional tribal images like Rainbird, Sunface and Thunderbird. Alternately, many brooches, bracelets belt buckles, and bolo ties feature restrained, repeating coral beaded patterns. Coral necklaces range from impossibly petite, tube-shaped heishi beads and graduated, horny twigs to plump, shaped and polished cabochons. Contemporary Native creations, such as pins and rings, may dramatically integrate bits of unworked coral into traditional designs.
Coral amulets remain popular, as of old. Many Italian men, for instance, carry or wear slightly twisted, horn-shaped coral cornicellos to deflect the Evil Eye. Their wives and daughters may prefer more delicate coral-twig earrings, pins or pendants.
Today, too, enthusiasts scour auctions for authentic precious coral creations – superb sculptures, decorative natural specimens and enticing pieces of jewelry.