If you love vintage and antique coral jewellery the way I do you may enjoy some of these stunningly beautiful coral pieces in the shop right now.
The wide variety and beauty of the natural materials used in vintage and antique jewellery is staggering. It seems jewellery designers never cease in their inventiveness. Here is a list which I believe is comprehensive or almost comprehensive (there is bound to be something I have left out).
I have excluded metal as that seems to deserve it’s own separate list.
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Throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras, children were given coral jewelry to wear as coral was considered protective and health giving. Consequently, there are quite a few surviving of examples of small earrings, necklaces and bracelets from the times. Babies were also given rattles and teethers made from coral.
In a previous post, I discussed the colors of coral; in this post I will discuss the types of coral used in jewelry. Most fine coral jewelry is made from ‘precious coral’ (‘Corallium rubrum’ or ‘Corallium Secundum’).
There are three basic kinds of precious coral that are commonly used. These are:
This is when the coral is left in it’s natural state.
Coral cabochon or beads
Carved or faceted coral
Non-precious coral jewelry
Because of the rightful protection of coral in contemporary times, the vast majority of modern coral jewelry is not made from ‘precious coral’. These are different kinds of coral altogether and have only been in use in recent times (with the exception of ‘synthetic coral’ and ‘reconstituted coral’ which both appear to have been around for longer.) Although they are not relevant to the study of antique jewelry, it is worthwhile becoming familiar with these other corals for the sake of identification. In a future post, I will discuss ways to test coral for dyes and treatment.
Can be treated and dyed in a variety of ways.
Usually dyed red, in natural state it is marbled green and brown.
This is made from small pieces of coral or coral powder soaked in binding agents then pressed into a solid piece and then re-cut to form beads and shapes. It is usually dyed red and has a uniform appearance.
This can be made from wood, plastic, resin, bone, glass, crushed stone with resin or ceramic.
Sources / further reading:
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
Louis Édouard Rioult – Portrait Of A Lady Wearing Coral Jewellery
Antique, untreated coral is one of the most loved of materials in antique jewelry. It is considered to be one of the ‘organic gemstones’ (the other two being amber and jet and pearls). Women who first own a piece of old coral jewelry soon become addicted to it and tend to become collectors. There is something truly sumptuous and almost edible about antique, untreated coral. It has long been worn as a talisman and later for its pure beauty; it was considered by the Victorians to promote good health and vitality, and you can really believe that it does once you experience wearing it.
One of the wonderful things about coral is that it tends to adapt over time to the woman who is wearing it and will subtly change color in a very organic way. Many women have reported a feeling of ‘rightness’ about their particular piece of coral jewelry, as though the piece is actually part of them. Coral ranges from white, to ‘Angel Skin’, to ‘Salmon’, to ‘Oxblood’ and every nuance in between.
28 – 29 October 2009
London, King Street