The Morals of Coral

“Don’t write about coral!” said my jeweler friend Nan, “You don’t know enough.” She’s right. What I don’t know about coral could fill a very large book. And what I do know can be boiled down to a few short sentences: I love the look and feel of it. I have acquired rather a lot of it over the years. And it’s endangered.

Earrings made with old coral beads. Top left & right, Rachel Lemoine Jewelry. Bottom, Nan Irwin Jewelry Design

Not a little endangered, but catastrophically so, to the point where major designers in the fashion, beauty and jewelry industries (starting with Tiffany & Co. in 2003) signed a pledge that they will no longer sell anything containing coral. But it’s still being imported and marketed, and what you see is not necessarily what you get.

Coral is a living organism, a tiny polyp that secretes a calcium carbonate exoskeleton—its own little limestone home. Those homes are the building blocks of coral reefs, one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet, supporting 25 percent of all known marine fish, which in turn support millions of small fishermen and feed more than a billion people.

19th century coral ring from Thailand, in gold with repoussé dragons. The stone got a bit banged up over the years (coral is soft), but I don’t love it less for that.

Coral is also an important resource in the development of anti-cancer drugs. Some species are used in orthopedic bone implants. Healthy reefs help protect coastal communities from tidal waves and other natural disasters. But the world’s coral reefs are dying—alarmingly fast. According to a report in the New York Timesthis is due at least in part to the effects of global warming.

Victorian coral brooch, on the pinker side. Gem coral can be red, orange or pink.

In the case of the red coral that’s been used in jewelry for thousands of years, there’s another major factor: human greed. Corallium rubrum, a/k/a precious coral, is found mainly in the Mediterranean; related species come from Japan. The world’s precious coral trade, based in Italy, generates an estimated $200 million a year.

The thing is, red coral grows extremely slowly, just a few millimeters to a centimeter per year. For decades, it’s been harvested much faster than it can be replenished. Mediterranean coral is just about gone: Tiny stubs remain where coral ‘forests’ once grew, and poaching is depleting these diminishing stocks still further. In Japan, robotic deep-water harvesting equipment is doing god-knows-what to the seabed. And what’s to stop it? Despite the genuine emergency, it’s still perfectly legal to sell red coral, which is not protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. In the US, there are statutes against selling coral that’s been poached or otherwise illegally acquired. But piles of new red coral are being offered for sale, and I’m willing to bet that not all of it was honestly come by.

Branch coral beads from the 70s, fashioned into a necklace in 2015

Another confusing thing about buying coral is that it’s often dyed, or adulterated, or sold under fancy sounding names that don’t mean anything. Prices are all over the map—ridiculously high, ridiculously low. Some vendors don’t actually know what they’re selling but make impressive claims anyway. I’m trying to find a more genteel term for all this, but it’s a shit show. The only responsible solution is to buy coral that’s genuinely old—decades old at the very least—from knowledgeable, reputable sellers. Don’t expect it to be cheap.

I recently acquired some exceptional branch coral beads (shown above and at the top of this post) from a wholesale dealer I’ve known for years. He said they were from the 1970s and had belonged to a jeweler who retired and sold off his inventory. He’s a trustworthy guy with an excellent reputation, so I know he was telling me the truth. But in the jewelry world, this kind of provenance—“It’s been lying in a safe. Trust me.”—is often the equivalent of the used car salesman saying it was last owned by a little old lady who only drove it on Sundays. Caveat, dear emptor.

Native American cuff bracelet in oxidized silver from the 1950s. Probably. It could be earlier or later—it’s unsigned. Coral is as beautiful set in silver as it is in gold.

One thought on “The Morals of Coral

  1. These photographs show how tempting it might be to possess immoral coral. My sister had a wee coral necklace as a christening gift.


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