Coral is the external skeleton of a tiny, plantlike animal called the coral polyp. It lives in warm oceans in all tropical areas of the world. Although these creatures are only one millimeter in length, they grow as a colony on top of each other for generations. The resulting structures can be quite massive. Coral growths come in many shapes. The coral commonly used to make gems is branched and treelike. The largest sections of a coral’s trunk are used for carvings. Most coral is cut into cabochons or made into a variety of shapes for use in necklaces.
Coral values are based on hue, saturation, size, cut, and polish. Top values for calcareous coral go to red, pink, and orange pieces. Other colors are graded separately. Highest values for conchiolin coral go to black, then brown. Gold color has additional value, especially if it shows a sheen. When polished, the color may shimmer through a transparent layer. Coral carvings can be quite valuable. The determining factors are the size and color of the piece as well as the skill of the artist.
The gem use of coral began before recorded history. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Native Americans used red, pink, and white corals extensively. Deep red, bright pink, and clear white corals were highly prized. Inland cultures far from the sources of coral would trade for these resources.
Although black and gold coral are relative newcomers to northern cultures, they have long been used as gem material in their native territories. They are found primarily off the coasts of Hawaii and Cameroon. Akori corals from Cameroon were highly prized before the eighteenth century. Hawaiian gold coral is the rarest gem coral variety and harder than other varieties. It was first described scientifically in the 1970s. The harvesting of this gem material, however, is currently restricted and cost prohibitive due to environmental considerations.
The best red corals come from the Mediterranean. Most of the Mediterranean material is worked in Italy, but much is also sent to Hong Kong for cutting. Conversely, Italy is also a major buyer of Taiwanese material. Large quantities of white, pink, mottled, and oxblood corals from the South China Sea are cut in China and Taiwan.
Although coral reefs are more commonly found in tropical areas, they can occur in colder, deeper water, such as those found to the west of Ireland.
Corals are becoming rare. Their harvest is restricted in most parts of the world. Be aware that any raw material you are offered could be illegal to possess.
There are two types of coral. Calcareous corals are composed primarily of calcite and come in whites, reds, and pinks. Conchiolin corals are composed of conchiolin, the same substance found in pearls and other shells. They come in black, brown, and gold colors. The conchiolin type is tougher and less brittle than the calcareous type.
A close relative of conchiolin corals is the rare blue coral. The hues are very nice, but the saturation is low, so these pieces tend towards gray shades.
Calcareous: wavy, fibrous structure, cavities from polyps, high spot birefringence.
Conchiolin: concentric, circular growth pattern (“tree rings”), white crescents in cross sections of branches.
In the 1970s, Pierre Gilson developed “created corals” to help protect the natural variety from destructive harvesting. This imitation red and pink coral has a specific gravity (SG) of 2.44. This is always lower than natural red and pink material. This synthetic has weak birefringence and lacks natural structure. Under high magnification, you can see a fine granular texture.
African Star, from South Africa, red, pink, violet and yellow/orange
Angel skin, light pink
Arciscuro, darkest red
Carbonetto, darkest red
Italian, good quality, white or pink
Japanese, pink with white center
Moro, high quality, light purplish red Japanese coral
Tosa, average quality Japanese coral
Ox blood, dark red
Pelle d’angelo, light pink
Rosa pallido, light pink
Rosa vivo, medium pink
Rosso scuro, dark red
Salmon, light pink
Sardinian, high quality, very hard
Sicilian, low quality
Black, black to dark brown
Blue, light to medium dark blue
Gold, yellow to brownish yellow, may have sheen
Corals are sensitive to heat and should be cleaned only with a damp cloth and dried carefully. Mechanical cleaning methods, such as ultrasonic, are not recommended. Consult our jewelry cleaning guide for more information on cleaning jewelry pieces with sensitive gems.