Pink and White Coral

R.H. & Company, of Glendale, Calif., provides us with the predominantly Mediterranean corals featured in this month’s layout. Here on the waterfront, we highlight medium to dark Mediterranean pinks and salmon pinks. Salmon pink coral is used to fashion the carved rose, drop pendant, and earring cabochons. The V-neck necklace also is set with small matching salmon color beads. The two accompanying dark pink coral branches can be used as is, strung into a necklace, or used for display. Below, we have a double strand necklace of matching 8-mm round dark pink coral beads. The following page features Pacific pink and white coral, highlighting the work of Gabriel Sanchez, jewelry designer from New York, who provided the Pacific white coral bead and drilled branch necklace strung with pearl rondelles. The Italian-made jewelry, furnished by R.H. & Company—showing Pacific light pink carved coral butterfly wings and ring-set cabochon, displays the typical growth structures that identifies natural coral.

The name “coral” often conjures up visions of pirates, shipwrecked on a Caribbean or South Seas island reef. However, gem corals are not the architects of the famed great barriers, but rather the makers of underwater tree-like structures found in places like the Mediterranean Sea or the Sea of Japan. Unlike their famous cousins, they present no danger to—and are well out of danger from—wooden boats.

Gem coral was once a living colony of sea creatures, tiny plant-like animals called polyps that create bushes of calcium carbonate, which acts as its outer skeleton. Coral polyps precipitate calcium from seawater, typically in warm, shallow tropical waters. First attaching itself to the rocky seafloor, coral develops like a plant, growing upward and then branching out in all directions, looking to trap food as it flows by. Some corals are located at depths well within scuba range (no more than 150 feet below the surface) and, when it was legal to do so, could be plucked from the sea floor without much trouble. Others grow at depths of up to 1,600 feet, where only fishing nets can be used to harvest them.

History and romance. Coral has been used in jewelry far longer than most transparent gem materials. In fact, coral jewelry has been found in tombs dating back to the Iron Age, some 3,000 years ago. On the local front, coral has been used in Native American jewelry for the past 700 years. Like most other red gems, coral was an amulet to ensure good hunting. It was also used as a diagnostic tool: Those wearing coral were reassured of continued good health as long as the color remained constant.

Coral fishing is not very romantic these days—no more diving off of wooden boats to retrieve these once-shallow-growing gems. Now, coral nets, weighted down by heavy rocks, are dragged along the seafloor, usually at depths inaccessible even to those with scuba gear. Coral branches that get caught in the nets are pulled up and into the boat. But the use of fishing nets is at odds with nature, as the nets destroy—sometimes without even harvesting—everything in their path. As with other fishing industries, net-fishing is exhausting known supplies, so many coral-producing countries have set limits as to what areas can be fished and how much coral can be harvested.

Major gem-coral-producing areas include the Pacific Ocean off the Sea of Japan, Taiwan, Hawaii, Australia, and—most importantly—the Mediterranean Sea.

Color variations. Coral can contain small amounts of carotene, which gives it the classic Mediterranean pink colors, from angel’s skin to salmon, as well as the deeper reds (called oxblood) commonly seen in Japan. Coral also occurs in white, black, gold, and blue, found only in the Pacific.

Qualities. Evenness of color and the uniformity of the coral structure are the two most important factors in judging coral quality. Coral typically occurs in branches, so look for telltale knots that can lessen the quality. These areas, where branches have grown away from the main body, may show variations in color.

Value. Red color is considered the most important, with pinks following close behind in second place. Angel’s skin—a much lighter pink—also is popular, as is white coral, but these are relatively inexpensive. Blue and golden corals are considered more of a novelty and are therefore more valuable.

Pricing. For fine-quality 10-mm x 8-mm red oval cabochons, expect to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $55 per piece. The darker pink or salmon color should be priced at roughly half that, or about $25 per piece. Light pink and angel’s skin coral sell for around $12 per piece, with white and black coral prices dropping off considerably to approximately $4 per piece.

Care and cleaning. All organic gem materials require special care. They are, of course, fairly soft. Calcium carbonate has a hardness of 3.5, which means that coral can easily be scratched. Coral is also very porous, so it will be sensitive to perfumes, hairsprays, and creams. To clean coral jewelry, use a soft damp cloth. If necessary, you can gently scrub the coral with a soft brush, using a very mild soap, in lukewarm water.

Bench settings and precautions. Prong settings should be handled with care, as too much pressure could indent the coral cabochon. One slip could scratch or even break a stone. Cabochons mounted in bezel settings may in fact be glued in place.

You should be aware that imitation coral has been seen on the market. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to identify: if you observe no growth structure, it’s imitation. True coral has wavy parallel “wood-grain” growth features throughout, visible with 10X magnification.

Recommended reading. For more information, see the following reference:

B. Liverino, Red Coral, Jewel of the Sea, Analisi-Trend, Bologna, Italy, 1989.

Special thanks to Levon Enfiadjian of R.H. & Company, Glendale, Calif., (800) 242-1233.