Coral is considered to be one of the ‘organic gemstones’ (the others being amber, jet and pearls). It was highly prized by the Victorians and throughout history. It is actually one of my absolute favorite materials used in antique jewelry. There is so much that I’d like to say about coral in fact, that I’ve decided rather than trying to tackle it all in one post, I will be breaking it down into several future posts. (It seems that every time I start to write about antique coral I get so overwhelmed with enthusiasm that I have to stop myself from saying too much!)
In this post, I will simply write about how the different colors of antique undyed or unbleached precious coral (corallium rubrum) are usually defined and how to recognize each. Angel skin and oxblood are generally considered the most valuable today. The more solid the color, the more valuable it is. There are some other colors (black, gold, lavender, blue) that are so rare I am not going to discuss them here as it is so unlikely to come across them in antique jewelry.
It is interesting to note that neither Christie’s or Sotheby’s or the V&A Museum generally refer to coral pieces by their color. It also appears that the more reputable dealers on the Internet tend to try and describe the nuanced color of each piece rather than simply labeling the colors with one of the labels I’ve put below. I am wondering how ‘official’ these definitions I have put below actually are. It has been said that coral experts can classify over one hundred shades of red! Nevertheless, it seems that these are practical ways of describing the colors that are generally agreed upon elsewhere.
I have also added the Italian names here which although the are not generally used in the Anglo world seem relevant as Italy is and was the center of the precious coral industry. (When I’ve put the French name it is because that is sometimes used in the Anglo world.)
This is pure white or somewhat beige coral. If there is some hint of pink it will be sometimes be called blush.
French: ‘peau d’ange’
Italian: ‘pelle d’angelo’
Can also be called ‘Fresh rose’
This color of coral was particularly prized in the Art Nouveau period. Angels’ skin coral is solid pale pink or a solid pale peach color, but sometimes blush coral is referred to as angel skin.
Salmon coral (Sciacca)
Italian: ‘Rose pallido’ (pale rose) or ‘roso vivo’ (bright rose)
Salmon coral ranges from a pale orange-pink to a deep, rich dark orange. This is the ‘coral’ color that most people associate with coral (ie coral lipstick etc). Salmon coral was particularly prized by the Victorians.
Red coral or Oxblood (also known as Sardinian or royal coral)
Italian: ‘Rosso’ (red) or ‘rosso scuro’ (dark red) or ‘carbonetto’ or ‘arciscuro’ (meaning darkest red of all)
Red coral or oxblood coral is greatly prized and rare. It ranges from very dark orange to red to dark purplish red. (If it is more orange than red then it should be defined as salmon but could also be called ‘dark salmon’.)
Sources / further reading:
Copeland, L. Lawrence, Coral, The Forgotten Gem, Gemological Institute of American Literary Research