Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Coral, the Tree of the Ocean

Rosary beads and earrings dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The ring is a contemporary Italian creation. The gold and coral bead, four strand necklace comes from Palestine, where It was worn by bedouin women.
Coral is animal, vegetable, and mineral all in one. Like magical trees, its crimson branches intertwine in the darkness of the ocean's depths. It is composed of calcium carbonate secretions from animals known as polyps, which grow in colonies and connect each other by their branches, gradually creating reefs.


Coral is found primarily in the Mediterranean, particularly off the North African coast, around Corsica and in the Gulf of Naples. Sadly, deep sea pollution and overharvesting sometimes outright pillaging have steadily exhausted the supply of the Mediterranean's "red gold" resources. The warm waters off China's coast also produce coral, although it is paler in color than the most prized Mediterranean variety.

Since ancient times, people have attributed protective magical powers to jewelry crafted from blood red coral, the color of life itself. Pink and while coral are much less sought after because of their pale hues. 


The ancients believed that coral provided protection against misfortunes, tem-pests, and poisons. 

Olive oil mixes well with coral and can give it a polished and shiny look f ii becomes tarnished. A little trick: rub the beads against the side of your nose for an instantaneous shine! Over the centuries, all manner of superstitions have been associated with coral. It was believed that coral would change color in the presence of a per-son near death or when some disaster was about to Strike. Some believed that coral had the power to Slop hemorrhaging and cure epilepsy.

From birth, children in Corsica and Italy wore a necklace of coral beads or a coral-branch pendant, sometimes set in gold a tradition that continues to this day in some regions. Through generations, it was believed that the jewel protracted against the evil eye and assured easier teething for nursing children. Similar beliefs are attached to amber in northern European countries.

Some Renaissance Italian paintings show the Christ child with coral jewelry, sometimes a necklace of beads or an amulet bracelet. There is also a portrait by Titian depicting Alessandro Farnese as a young man wearing a short, gold-inlaid, damascened suit of armor. The neck, cuffs, and skirt are trimmed with branches of coral, stitched on the velvet lining of' the metal as protective talismans.

Coral Bead Bracelet
For centuries, amulets carved from red coral have been sold in Naples. They are either horn-shaped like little peppers or sometimes carved like a hand with the thumb folded back between the index and middle finger or with the index and ring fingers crossed to form a horn shape. Such jewelry is considered to be both ornament and good-luck charm (jettatura in Italian, which literally means "cagier of fate").

These popular talismans can be found throughout Europe.


Authentic coral can by recognized by its distinctive microscopic parallel striations. A jeweler's loupe is often required to distinguish these special patterns, especially when the coral is dark in color. Coral is opaque and is not particularly heavy or light in weight. It pies off a lively sound if knocked against the teeth. 

Coral beads Necklace jewelry
Noble coral shades range from ox-blood red, pale pink (poetically known as "angel skin coral") to white with the faintest hint of rose. 

So called white, blue, and black corals are actually madrepores and are indeed related to coral. They are not considered by jewelers to belong to the prized noble coral family, but their branches are sometimes fashioned into necklaces or used in other whimsical costume jewelry. 


The Egyptians used red glass to imitate coral, and this practice continues today. When lit from behind, glass beads are translucent. Glass also has a smooth shiny quality with no visible striations. 

Bone, horn, corozo nuts, Bakelite, and dyed red plastic have all been used to make counterfeits. Today, the un-sophisticated buyer's enemies are blends of powdered coral mixed with resin, a substance that can be made in any color and is very easy to shape. Forgers go so far as to etch the surface to imitate the striations of genuine coral.

Well-advised purchases

To avoid being cheated, take note of the price of the jewel. A large necklace or one that has several strands of beads should be expensive if it is authentic (when sold by weight alone, coral is more expensive than gold!). 

Mediterranean red

Dark red coral from the Mediterranean is the most valuable. A blood red coral cabochon, the color of a ripe pepper and as big as a thumbnail, can easily fetch several hundred dollars if it is in perfect condition. 
Coral jewelry is featured in a variety of styles
Pieces of white coral, carved and dyed red, are sometimes sold as noble coral. If these dyed materials are soaked in alcohol, the color will bleed. The artificially created red coloring is quite easy to recognize because it is often rather harsh and excessively bright, lacking the subtle shading of real coral. However, it does lend itself to fashioning impressively large necklaces.

Anything rare is costly. Red coral is scarce and therefore expensive; so expensive that necklaces crafted from branches of red or pink coral, once sold for a few dollars in souvenir shops, have become very valuable. 


Chinese coral is primarily used today since Mediterranean coral has largely disappeared. It can be recognized by its lighter, orangey colors. 

Coral Beads JewelryWhen the black coral of southern seas is polished, it resembles lacquer and is often crafted into bangle bracelets.


Coral is an organic, porous, and fragile material. Never drop it on a hard surface because it is as breakable as glass. 

If coral is soiled and darkened, a bath in olive oil is the answer. Let it soak overnight, then wipe with a paper towel. There are other remedies. You can soak ft in water with a pinch of baking soda, or, as with pearls, give it a saltwater bath. Soaking necklaces repeatedly can weaken the cord; one alternative is to dip a paper towel in oil and carefully wipe the beads.

Writer-Laura Fronty
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