From Myth to Souvenir: The History of Coral as Adornment

According to Greek mythology, coral was formed after the slaying of the gorgon Medusa by the demigod Perseus. Perseus took the head of Medusa to the ocean so he could wash his hands, leaving the head facing the water. The monster’s petrifying stare, together with blood from the severed head leaked into the ocean, and turned algae and seaweed into hardened red coral.  

Fine Jewels. Leonard Joel Auctions
Platinum, coral, onyx and diamond brooch

In addition to this macabre tale, stories surrounding the power of coral have long captured the interest of cultures and societies globally. Strands of coral have been found in Egyptian burial tombs, the ancient Romans adorned children with coral beads and talismans for medicinal protection, whilst in Qing dynasty China, coral was a display of social status. As far back as the beginning of the first millennium AD, the natural gem has also been a trade commodity, with significant movement between the Mediterranean and India, documented by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopaedic text Naturalis Historia.  

Whilst the use of coral in jewellery extends over many centuries, the material became exceptionally popular in the late 17th to late 19th centuries in Britain and Europe, aligned with the popularity of ‘The Grand Tour’. Best described as an extended cultural and educational rite of passage for the British elite, The Grand Tour was propelled by a renewed interest in classics, Roman and Greek mythology, and ancient gems. Visitors sought out mementos and portable souvenirs to return home with, one of which was coral carvings and jewellery. Coral variety Corallium rebrum, displaying deep red, orange, and soft pink hues, was found in abundance at the time off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. Neoclassical inspired coral jewellery soared in popularity
and swiftly became a marker of a cultured, sophisticated,
and well-travelled individual. 

The arrival of the Art Deco era saw fashion and design undergo significant change. With designs focused on geometric shapes, decadent details, and deliberate juxtaposition of colours, vividly pigmented coral was a popular material in the jewellery of the time. Cartier was one of the leading houses, pairing coral with glittering diamonds and silky onyx in designs showcased at the 1925 Paris Exposition Inernationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industraial Modernes. Art Deco coral jewellery by international houses including Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels, Templier, and Lacloche continue to command impressive prices at auction.

As the popularity of coral has extended over so many centuries, its future is sadly an uncertain one. Rising sea levels and pollution, paired with over mining have left coral deposits depleted and in the protection of environmental organisations. Thankfully, the availability of antique and vintage coral jewellery on the secondary market means that acquiring a piece can be entirely sustainable. The March Fine Jewels & Timepieces auction features a number of vintage coral jewels for discerning collectors and gem enthusiasts alike. 

BETHANY MCGOUGAN / Head of Fine Jewels & Timepieces

Banner Image: Van Cleef & Arpels 18ct gold, diamond and carved coral brooch | $25,000-35,000
Tony White, 18ct gold, coral and diamond earrings | $6,000-9,000
Van Cleef & Arpels, 18ct gold, coral and diamond brooch/pendant | $18,000-24,000

February 2023