STONE: Coral

With its roots steeped in mythol­ogy and roy­alty, the lus­trous stone is now hit­ting the high notes in the jew­ellery scene, re­ports Sara Yap

Adore Gems & Timepieces - - CONTENTS -

When it comes to hav­ing a sto­ried his­tory, coral has se­ri­ous brag­ging rights. The an­cient war­riors of Gaul in Western Europe used it as a pro­tec­tive or­na­ment on their weapons of war, while Romans in the Mid­dle Ages re­lied on it as a tal­is­man against witch­craft and dan­ger. In Greek folk­lore, it was also be­lieved that Po­sei­don, the god of the sea, resided in an op­u­lent palace decked in the pre­cious stone.

The gem­stone even has a fas­ci­nat­ing (and gory) ori­gin story: Ac­cord­ing to Greek mythol­ogy, it was cre­ated from the blood of the mon­ster Me­dusa, who was killed by Per­sus. He had placed her de­cap­i­tated head on a rock while wash­ing his hands and later dis­cov­ered her blood had flowed into the sea and turned the sea­weed into red stone.

Most com­monly found in hues of red and pink, coral has also been favoured by royals for cen­turies. Dur­ing the Nara pe­riod in Ja­pan (710-794 AD), Em­peror Shomu and Em­press Komyo wore crowns be­decked with tas­sels of coral beads. In parts of present-day West Africa, the stone re­mains a sym­bol of roy­alty and is donned by kings and no­bles, while in Nige­ria, coral beads fea­ture promi­nently as part of bri­dal cer­e­mo­nial out­fits.

More re­cently, the stone has fea­tured in much-de­sired high jew­ellery and lux­ury time­pieces. In June 2015, Van Cleef &

Ar­pels rolled out its Seven Seas col­lec­tion com­pris­ing pieces fes­tooned with vivid gems such as coral, chryso­prase and pearls. One of the stand­out jew­els was its Fla­mant Co­rail neck­lace shaped like a flamingo spread­ing its wings. The bird’s head and body was crafted in red and pink coral, which com­ple­mented the sur­round­ing as­sort­ment of pink sap­phires and di­a­monds. There was also a match­ing pair of ear­rings set with pink coral.

Over at Cartier, its lat­est Étour­dis­sant col­lec­tion is the first time since the 1920s that coral is used so ex­ten­sively. The jew­eller in­tro­duced an eye-pop­ping plat­inum neck­lace with coral beads in­ter­spersed with emer­alds and pearls, as well as a ring and bracelet adorned with coral, emer­alds, onyx and bril­liant-cut di­a­monds. Bul­gari also pre­sented a stunning pink gold neck­lace em­bel­lished with coral, as part of its Ital­ian Gar­dens col­lec­tion that was launched at the same time. In the realm of time­pieces, Chanel’s Made­moi­selle Privé Coro­man­del Glyp­tique range from 2015 fea­tures coral el­e­ments on the di­als, which are dec­o­rated with bird mo­tifs.


While other gem­stones orig­i­nate from min­er­als, coral is or­ganic and nat­u­rally formed in the ocean. It com­prises clus­ters of sea crea­tures called coral polyps, which have lime­stone ex­oskele­tons. The parts used in jew­ellery are ob­tained from the hard, branch-like skele­tons of the polyps when they die. Af­ter be­ing har­vested, the coral is usu­ally pol­ished to at­tain a glossy ef­fect.

Coral typ­i­cally comes in var­i­ous shades of pink and red. It is also avail­able in other colours such as white, blue, gold and black. Th­ese, how­ever, are rare. The most com­mon coral used in jew­ellery is the red­hued Co­ral­lium rubrum, which has a rel­a­tive den­sity of 3.86 and hard­ness of 3.5 on the Mohs scale.

In re­cent years, coral har­vest­ing has be­come a con­tro­ver­sial topic due to the reefs be­com­ing an en­dan­gered species.

Last year, the US Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion added 20 coral types to its list of En­dan­gered Species Act — a ten­fold in­crease from 2013. As a more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly al­ter­na­tive, some jew­ellers such as Chanel and Cartier have turned to us­ing ex­ist­ing corals in the mar­ket. In cases like th­ese, the pre­cious stones are taken from old jew­els, cleaned up and pol­ished be­fore be­ing reused in new de­signs.


Red and pink coral is usu­ally har­vested from the Mediter­ranean Sea, while blue coral can be ac­quired from Cameroon. As for the rare black and gold corals, they can be ob­tained from the waters of Hawaii. Other places where coral can be found in­clude Ja­pan, Tai­wan, the Cape Verde is­lands and the At­lantic coast.

One of the most well-known pro­duc­ers of coral jew­ellery is Torre del Greco in Naples. The city cre­ated red coral pieces since the 17th cen­tury, sourc­ing its stones from the Mediter­ranean Sea. There is even a ded­i­cated coral mu­seum there named Museo del Co­rallo Camo.


Corals are weighed in carats. Top-grade corals are con­sis­tently coloured with­out any cracks, holes or de­fects. They must also be round or oval-shaped with a smooth sur­face. There is a wide va­ri­ety of coral types, but among the most sought-af­ter are the deep red Sar­dinian coral (which is known for its hard­ness) and Ja­panese “oxblood” coral, which is dressed in a crim­son hue and har­vested from the Western Pa­cific and off the coast of Tosa in Kochi, Ja­pan. Also highly val­ued is pink coral, rang­ing from shades of red to peach, and fished from the waters sur­round­ing Ja­pan. A par­tic­u­larly rare species is an­gel skin coral (known as boke in Ja­panese), which comes in white with a dust­ing of pink.

Ear­lier this year at a Sotheby’s Lon­don auc­tion, a long coral Al­ham­bra neck­lace from Van Cleef & Ar­pels went un­der the ham­mer for £22,500. The piece com­prised del­i­cate clover mo­tifs mounted with pink coral and con­nected by an 18k gold fine link chain. The de­sign dates back to the 1970s and was even favoured by roy­alty: In 1975, HSH Princess Grace of Monaco was so en­am­oured with it that she pur­chased it along with vari­a­tions in mala­chite and tor­toise­shell.

From top: Bul­gari High Jew­eller y neck­lace in pink gold with coral el­e­ments, peri­dot stones and pavé di­a­monds; Cartier’s Flam­boy­ant ring in plat­inum with a 30.19-ct coral bead, four coral beads to­talling 13.47ct, emer­alds, onyx, black lac­quer and di­a­monds

From top: Van Cleef & Ar­pels’s Fla­mant Co­rail in pink gold with round and pear-shaped di­a­monds, round and pear­shaped pink sap­phires, round peri­dots, pink and red coral, onyx; Chanel’s Made­moi­selle Privé Coro­man­del Glyp­tique

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