Joli Coeur, 1867, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Manchester Art Gallery, Public domain, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Coral has long been a coveted material used in decorative arts and jewelry. Looking back through human history, there is evidence of coral being a precious and valuable material worthy of being sought after and used in trade. Coral’s vivid natural pigmentation made it perfect for use in design before synthetic dyes were created. There is evidence of coral being used in jewelry and other fine ornamentations by prehistoric humans; Ancient Egyptians have been found buried with coral beads, and the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, in his encyclopedic book Natural History, recounts how the Gauls decorated their swords and armor with coral.
But beyond its stunning natural color, why was coral so in demand? The answer is in its supposed powerful ability to ward off evil–protecting against the “evil eye” falling upon you. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder writes: “The berries of coral are no less esteemed by the men in India than are the pearls of that country by the females among us: their soothsayers, too, and diviners look upon coral as an amulet endowed with sacred properties, and a sure preservative against all dangers: hence it is that they equally value it as an ornament and as an object of devotion.” This belief held strong across cultures and peoples, and coral was often worn in either its natural state or carved into a shape that would be worn as an amulet.
Romans also believed coral, particularly in its red variety, held strong medicinal properties, particularly for young children. It soon became common practice for babies and young children to wear strands of coral across their necks and on their arms. Renaissance paintings contain many depictions of coral jewelry worn by children–including the baby Jesus in religious artworks.
Portrait of Susanna de Vos, the Painter’s Third Daughter, 1627, Cornelis de Vos, Städel Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In this portrait, the painter shows his daughter in a happy, domestic setting, playing with her food. Around each wrist is a strand of bright coral. It not only adds more visual interest to the painting, but was likely worn by the child every day for protection and also even for teething.
Madonna and Child with Angels, between 1459 and 1460, by Giorgio di Tomaso Schiavone, Walters Art Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Schiavone uses the vibrant color of coral throughout this painting and portrays the baby Jesus as wearing a coral necklace and pendant. Having these figures draped in luscious fabrics and fine gemstones set them apart and was a way to depict to the viewer how divine the figures were.
With global trade expanding, coral spread across the world and it appears more in paintings and jewelry worn by a wide array of people. In the Regency and Victorian eras, coral's popularity in jewelry design exploded, with multiple examples of fine coral work on display in museums. Whether it was strung as beads or carved into detailed cameos, coral was more coveted than ever. Much of its popularity can also be attributed to the new travel industry, with a certain class of people and nobility going on “Grand Tours” across Europe, which included a necessary stop in an Italian city where coral jewelry was readily on hand. A strand of coral was an excellent symbol of how well-traveled and worldly you were.
Portrait of a lady standing next to a piano forte holding a manuscript, ca. 1808, Adèle Romany, Museum of Fine-Arts, Boston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of a Woman with Coral Beads, mid-1800s, by Hans Canon, Palmer Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Coral, however, is a living organism and does not grow quickly. The desirable colors of coral have been in such demand for such a sustained amount of time that much coral has been over-mined to the point of near extinction. Pair this with ocean pollution and rising sea temperatures, and coral has become something to protect, not mine. Because of its protected status, coral jewelry is not being produced at nearly the level it once was. Luckily there is a sustainable way to wear this incredible natural gem – and that is to purchase the stunning antique and vintage coral jewelry that is still available! Whether set in gold or silver, coral looks stunning! I have had so many incredible coral pieces in my shop, and it is always special to come across a new piece with that coveted vivid color. Much has changed throughout human history, but being drawn to coral definitely hasn’t!
This stunning antique Victorian ring is set in gold and features a carved coral cameo of a woman. Because it is such a soft stone, coral is a popular material to use for cameos.
From the sold archives is this incredible, large vintage coral cocktail ring! Its peachy color is totally natural, and shows the diversity of color coral could be found in.
One of the most popular ways to wear natural coral was in its branch form, strung into a graduated necklace! This beautiful 1950s necklace is a perfect length and bring such a pop of color to any look!
Below, check out some examples of coral in jewelry and design throughout history:
Indigenous American (Pre-Columbian); Necklace, 2300 B.C.–A.D. 1492, coral, turquoise, and cotton, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Navajo (Native American), Six-Strand Necklace, ca. 1920s. Coral, silver, turquoise, cloth, Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Marjorie Ruth Wagner, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
Nepal (Newari) Necklace, gold, with coral, turquoise and other precious stones, 17th–19th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Pendant, German or Spanish, ca. 1500, coral, gold, silver-gilt, pearl, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Covered Vase Decorated with Female Figure Holding Lingzhi Fungus and Peony Branch, Accompanied by a Boy, a Crane, and a Deer, China, Qing dynasty, 18th century, coral, Asian collection in the Worcester Art Museum, Original artisans unknown; photograph by Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Tortoise shell comb with seven teeth and a hinged plate ornamented with two rows of coral beads and three coral pendants on chains of gold beads attached to the plate, Italy, mid-19th century, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Suite of Choker, Bracelet, Brooch and Earrings (image of necklace), Italy, circa 1840-1850, Gift of Katherine Westheimer, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons