Although considered a gem, coral is a conglomeration of the skeletons of tiny marine invertebrates which grow together in colonies in the depths of warm seas. The skeletons consist
of calcium carbonate in the form of calcite which attaches to rocks and other objects growing like trees and branches, seldom exceeding one and a half inches in height. It is from these parts that the fascinating organic gem coral is obtained.
In its unprocessed state, coral is matt, but once polished, it takes on a beautiful shine. High-quality coral is of an even color and free of cracks, blotches, striations, and holes. Traditionally, the fragile little coral branches were brought up from the depths with trawl nets.
However, since high quality corals have become rather rare, divers are now deployed in a less destructive process which involves diving and harvesting the sensitive coral branches, to be cleaned, sorted and processed by means of saws, knives, files or drills and not ground or cut on a wheel, as it was done in the past.
Like pearls, coral is a product of the element water, both consisting of over 90% carbonic lime. It is an interesting phenomenon that nature uses the same dull material to create fiery red coral and to grow beautiful pearls!
CONTROVERSY ON NAMES ORIGINS
The origins of coral’s name remain the subject of controversy amongst the etymologists. Whereas some consider the Greek word ‘koraillon’ as the origin, meaning the calcareous skeleton of the coral animal, or ‘kura-halos’ denoting ‘mermaid’ due to the fact that the fine branches of coral sometimes resemble small figures, others advocate the theory that the name derives from the Hebrew word ‘goral’, referring to the stones used to cast an oracle.
As a matter of fact, coral stems and branches were often used in ancient times for casting oracles in Palestine and around the Mediterranean, where this organic gem has held a special significance since ancient times.
ANGEL SKIN: QUEEN OF CORALS
Amongst the existing varieties of coral, only the precious ‘coralium nobile’ is of special interest to jewelers and collectors. Its color ranges from pinkish-white to salmon and blood-red, and is found in tropical and subtropical oceans along the coasts of Algeria, Morocco and Corsica, mostly in depths of less than fifty feet.
The pink variety of coral termed appropriately Peau d’Ange or ‘angel’s skin, is extremely rare and sought after. Other well known colors are the rich red Japanese Moro coral, the pale pink ‘Boke’ and the red ‘Sardegna’ coral.
Other varieties of coral have been found in depths of up to three thousand meters in the seas around Japan, Taiwan and the Malayan Archipelago, in the Red Sea, the Biscayne Gulf and around the Canary Islands.
Root or foam corals are lighter and more reasonably priced than precious coral. Root corals are actually a distinct coral species on their own – i.e. special kind of coral growth. They are sometimes confused with the foam corals. The latter, are those parts of the Japanese Momo coral which remain fixed in the sand or mud and form the transition from the foot of the coral to the main part of the growth. This variety has been in the trade for a long time; it is heavier than the root coral and somewhat more expensive.
Both kinds find their way into the trade in large quantities from China and Japan.. Due to their size and relatively low weight, they are popular wherever color and volume are in demand at low prices.
The blue and ‘sponge’ corals are less compact in structure than their pink and red counterparts. Their texture is rough and porous and accepts very little polish. The natural colors are a pinkish red with brownish patches, and gray-blue, which are often dyed to enhance their color and/or resin impregnated to enhance their durability.
Black and golden corals belong to the group of corals with tough and keratin-like protein, whose polished pieces are high in durability and of remarkable beauty. The golden color is highly prized and can be natural.
Bamboo or Sea Bamboo Coral has a distinct structure inherent in its name. The skeletons consist of branch-like calcium carbonate material, interspersed with ‘joints’ of protein. The natural color is creamy white with brownish or black joints. The harder parts are cut and dried to produce beads or cabs while larger pieces are applied to ornamental objects.
CORAL: TALISMAN & MEDICINE THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Falling under the Zodiac sign of Pisces and associated with the House of Balance Libra,
coral has been used not only to produce ornamental objects but also cherished as a talisman. The ancient faith in the protective power of coral is perpetuated in the custom of putting a necklace of red corals round the neck of a small child. Young girls too are often given a fine coral necklace as their first piece of jewelry. Yet coral is more than that: in some wonderful way, coral reflects the complexion of its wearer, developing an irresistible effect on her bare skin.
In the ancient Chinese civilization, coral was supposed to represent a tree called ‘Tieb shu’ which grew on the ocean floor only once a century, and symbolized longevity. The Romans powdered coral and ingested it to soothe aching stomachs.
The same powder was burned and used in ointments, to remedy ulcers and sore eyes. The Roman scholar Pliny wrote at length on the powers that people of his time ascribed to coral, such as protecting the wearer from lightening, tornados and tempests. Women in Rome wore coral necklaces as charms against sterility.
The ancient Greeks believed coral to have the power to baffle witchcraft and to protect against poisons and storms and also ground coral into a powder, mixed it with seed-corn and spread it about their fields to guard against locusts, thunderstorms, and blight.
In India, coral was coveted as having numerous sacred properties, and as in China and Japan, was very popular for use in rosaries, and believed to prevent cholera and all epidemics.
Coral, they further believed, would change color to indicate the presence of poison or impending sickness, would quicken the senses, strengthen mental faculties and preserve eyesight by preventing gradual loss of energy in the optic nerve.
And the Navajo Indians of the nineteenth century esteemed coral as one of the eighteen sacred objects and used it for jewelry and ornamentation. Even into late nineteenth century, a diluted powder of coral was prescribed by physicians to cure for whooping cough. As M. Teste wrote on coral, ‘for a chronic convulsive cough, it is like water thrown upon fire’.
In vogue throughout the Victorian era, coral from the Bay of Naples was carved in Italy and used as cameos or, in naturalistic forms, incorporated into necklaces and brooches to be sold throughout Europe.