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Coral Gemstones - A natural product

Introduction

There is a lot of fascination generated by the coral as a decorative material, this is an organic gemstone which makes one think of the sun, sea, and perfect beaches which brings the longing for the summer months.

The origin of the name is quite controversial, with some experts saying that it came from the Greek word ‘Koralion’ which means the hard, calcium skeleton of coral animals or from the name used for mermaid, ‘Kura-Halos’; the second name is brought forth since the small branches of coral look like small figurines or mermaids. There are other experts who say that the name came from the Hebrew word ‘Goral’ which is a word used to describe a small stone that was used to draw lots, since the coral branches were tools of the oracles of Asia Minor, Palestine and the Mediterranean region.

Around Japan, there are vast beds of corals which can be found within depths of 3 to 300 meters. Other areas are Taiwan, the Red Sea, and the Canary Islands, the Malaysian Archipelago, the Midway Islands and the North Eastern parts of Australia. With the Mediterranean Sea, corals are found in banks off the coast of Sardinia, Algeria, Tunisia, Tyrrhenian Sea; other banks are found in Turkey and the Former Yugoslavia.

As soon as one hears the word coral, the main impression one gets is the coral which is found on the Southern Ocean and Australia; one usually thinks of the coral reefs, bands and atolls, which are fascinating worlds of beauty and color, artistically created by Nature. However in this case, the coral of interest is not that which is really protected to preserve these habitats. In the case of jewelry, only ‘corallium rubrum’ and ‘corallium japonicum’.

Corals are organic materials, just like pearls are. These are products that flourish in water, and they are chemically closely related to one another; a very interesting characteristic indeed. Their bodies have more than 90% made of calcium carbonate. This is quite an impressive factor, considering that calcium carbonate on its own, it quite unimpressive, but when put in these gemstones, the product looks exquisite.

What exactly are corals?

Corals are created by tiny living creatures, which had settled in the deep and warm parts of the oceans thousands of years ago, in large colonies. These creatures, called polyps, were surrounded by a skin made of flesh, and they excrete carbon-based products which end up growing liked trees and branches. The growths can grow up to heights of about 40cm but each branch rarely exceeds 4 cm in length. At the points where they branch, the thickness is increased. It is from these thick forks, where the material that is used to make coral jewelry is extracted.

Traditionally, the nest of trawlers were used to bring up the fragile coral trees, but this soon changed; the fact that first-class has become more rare, it is only close examination which will determine those that can be used for jewelry. This is a process that is less destructive, and also gives the new coral trees a chance to grow. The divers go down and harvest the trees in a non-destructive manner. Once this is done, the coral braches are cleaned, sorted, and processes, using files, knives, saws or drills. Coral is never cut using a wheel.

Coral that has not been processed is called matt, and it is only when it has been processed and polished that you can see the beautiful sheen. This is a porous material, and the more holes and cracks that it has, the lower the quality. It is possible to use colored wax to filling the cracks and holes in some of these low-quality corals, in order to make it look better. The high-quality coral does not have any holes and it if of an even color; you do not get striations, blotches or other color problems in this coral. The high-quality coral is very rare and it attracted a very high price. This means that when you are being given what looks like high-quality coral at a very low price, you would do well to be skeptic and be careful. It is best to purchase high-quality coral into a reputed coral jeweler or merchant.

The colorful but sensitive coral world

Although red is said to be the most common coral color, there are others that have many colors. They all grow in Nature, in various colors from white to red, black, brown and also blue. However, the most popular and common are the red corals, which have hues such as salmon and pale pink. The dark red colors are the most valuable. High fashion also values the gold and blue corals, with the blue variety being very rare. The one which is particularly precious is that of the angel skin coral, which has white and pink colors. The others which are also valuable are the pale pink ‘Boke’, the red ‘Sardegna’, and red Japanese Moro Coral.

Corals are not really as sensitive as most people make them out to be, but this is an organic gemstone with a hardness of 3.5 on the Mohs scale, which is quite soft, when compared to other gemstones. It is possible to ruin their beautiful nature, by using the wrong treatment; coral should not come into contact with hot water, bright light and cosmetics. Coral need special care, such as being kept in a protected casing, and washing with a soft towel and warm water. Should the surface of these gemstones be scraped, they should be taken to a jewelry who will polish them and remove the scratches.

Root and Foam coral; the attractive lightweights

Root coral, and foam coral, are very light in weight when compared to the precious coral; they are also relatively cheaper. Root coral is not actually the root of a coral tree, but a species all on its own. It is a special type of coral growth. Root coral is sometimes confused with foam coral. Foam coral is taken from the parts of the Japanese Moro Coral which is left in the sand or mud; this is what forms the transition from the foot to the main growth of the coral. Foam coral has been traded for a very long period and it is heavier than root coral, but also slightly more expensive. China and Japan are the main producers and buyers of foam and root coral. Whenever color and volume are desired, then these two are used, since they are light and will not weigh down on the wearer.

The irresistible feel of coral on bare skin

Since time immemorial, coral has been used as a protective stone, as well as for adornment. Today you will still find people who wear the red coral in order to protect themselves from evil spirits. Today, in modern gemstone therapy, you will find coral being used to refile fear and tension and promote a positive outlook in life.

In some cultures, red corals are placed on the necks of small children, in order to protect them from evil and instill great heath and vigor in the child. In the same culture, the first piece of jewelry that is given to young girls has to be a fine coral necklace. Coral, is much more than just a protective talisman; it is also a great piece of jewelry that will reflect the complexion of the wearer; this bring a [positive and irresistible effect on her skin. Of all the gemstones, there is none that complements the human skin like the coral; it is used by many designers to create wonderful fashion creations.

Corallium Rubrum is commonly called the red coral or precious coral. It, and several other related species of Marine corals are used in the making of jewelry, since their intense red or pink skeleton is quite hard.

The habitat of corals

It is on low sedimentation rocky sea bottoms where you find red coral growing, and the environment is typically dark; this means in crevasses and caverns. Corallium Rubrum is said to be the original species, and is mainly found in the Mediterranean. Although it grows in varying depths of up to 300 meters, it is that which is found in the shallow ends that is almost depleted by harvesting. The Coral Riviera, or Alghero, Sardinia, has caves at 4 to 35 meters in depth where you can find this coral. It is also possible to find the same coral in the Strait of Gibraltar, off the coast of Portugal and the Cape Verde Islands. There are other corallium species which are used for jewelry, and these are found around Japan and Taiwan, mainly Corallium Japonicum. These can be found in deep water, of about 350 to 1500 meters deep, where there are strong currents.

The anatomy of corals

Corals are classified as Alcyonacea, and they have been found to have the same small leafless bushes that are common to others of the same species. They have a valuable skeleton, which can grow up to a meter in height, and is made of a mesh of spicules of Calcium carbonate, which gets its red color from carotenoids. The living form of coral has a skeletal branch system, from which small white polyps protrude; these have an octameric radial symmetry.

Coral, the gemstone

Naturally, coral has a matte appearance, but one it is cut and polished, it gets a glassy shine. The most popular colors are the warm pink, deep red and pale pink hues; the name is also used to describe items that have these same colors. Due to their permanent coloration and gloss, and also the intensity of these colors, coral has been used for decorative purposes since antiquity. Jewelry made of coral has been found in prehistoric European burial sites, and also ancient Egyptian ones. This was a gemstone that was very popular during the Victorian Era. The gemstone is not very hard, and is therefore best used in the making of beads and cabochons.

The history of the coral trade

At the start of the first millennium, coral was extensively traded between the Indian and Mediterranean civilizations. This gem was believed to have mysterious protective powers. Pliny the Elder says that before the Indians started looking for this gem, it was used extensively by the Gauls to decorate their weapons and helmets. By the time Pliny was writing this, there was a great demand for coral from the Eastern world, one which even surpassed that from the regions where coral was harvested.

The Romans used to hang the braches of coral on their children’s necks in order to keep of any danger or evil spirit; they also believed that it had medicinal properties. All through the Middle Ages and the beginning of the 20th Century, coral was worn as a protection against the Evil Eye, and was believed to cure women who suffered from infertility.

Securing the right to harvest coral from the African Coast, during the Middle Ages, was something that brought a lot of rivalry between communities living in the Mediterranean communities of Europe. As early as the fifteenth century, there were stories of Torre del Greco, which were intimately woven with the harvest of coral. The Royal Society of Coral was formed in 1790, and was tasked with the task of regulating the coral trade in the town of Torre del Greco. This means that this trade flourished for several years in this region. In 1789, Ferdinand IV of Bourbon Code coral, enacted a law, which was prepared by the Neapolitan jurist Michael Florio, with the specific purpose of regulating the coral fisheries, with the sailors of Torre del Greco, the locals and the Trapani featuring as interested parties. The regulation did not have the effect it was enacted for.

In 1805, the first factory designed to manufacture coral from this region was built by Paul Bartholomew Martin, who was a French Genoese. This kicked of what is known as the Golden Age for coral manufacture in the city, which is found on the Mt. Vesuvius slopes; this was brought about by the fact that the fishermen of Torre del Greco controlled most of the coral fishing. After 1875, the Torre del Greco and the Sciacca Coral started working together; the latter was built in 1875, and had a school for the manufacture of coral items, which was closed in 1885, but reopened in 1887. In 1933, it was turned into the Museum of Coral. After this the Japanese Coral found its way into the markets of Calcutta and Madras.

There is another story which claims that the Tunisian fisheries were under the control of Charles V of Spain, before the whole business was taken over by the French, until the Revolutionary government opened up the trade in 1793. It is also said that for a short period, the British controlled the fisheries, before they were taken over by the French. Mush of the coral trade was found in Marseille, before the French revolution. It later moved to Italy, where the main areas for the procuring and processing of coral was centered in Genoa, Rome and Naples.

The cultural use of coral gemstones

In Greek mythology, the story of Perseus tries to explain the origin of coral. It is said that when Perseus petrified the sea monster Cetus, which was threatening Andromeda, he placed the head of Medusa on the riverbank in order to wash his hands, and when he retrieved the head, he saw that the blood had turned all the seaweed into red coral. This is the main reason why coral is also known as Gorgeia, since Medusa was among the three gorgons. It is said that Hephaestus first made his work from coral and that Perseus himself later lived in a palace made of coral and other gems.

Among the romans, red coral was believed to counter the venom from scorpions and snakes, and that medicine men could diagnose diseases by checking on the color changes of coral.

Among the Hindu, red coral is connected to the planet mars or Graha-Mangala; the coral would be used to appease Mars and was worn on the ring finger.

The conservation of coral

The red coral that is found along the Mediterranean coast has been extensively damaged by excessive fishing; it is nearly impossible to find red coral at depths that are 50 meters and shallower. The climate change in this area and this intensive fishing has threatened the persistence of red coral. This is why the three oldest Mediterranean, Marine Protected Areas, namely Scandola, Banyuls and Carry-le-Rouet, which are found off the Corsican Coast, have large colonies of corallium rubrum. It is through protection that large sizes and numbers of colonies can be found at both shallow and deeper depths.

A profile of coral

It is sad that the natural pearl is not the only organic sea gemstone that is affected by pollution. Now the red coral, which is the most popular, is the in great danger, and a lot has to be done in order to protect it and increase its numbers.

Coral is very highly valued in Persia, Rome and India, and it is one of the prominent gemstones used in artisanry at a similar level to ivory and amber; this is more so among the Native American people. Coral, just like any other organic gemstone, is said to have medicinal and spiritual powers. Today, coral powder is still being used by the Indians as an aphrodisiac; this has led harvesters to use dynamite to blow up coral reefs. These are some of the harvesting techniques which are causing ripples in the coral world; however, this gem has to face far worse threats than those posed by the dynamite harvesters.

Coral, which is actually a living organism must fend off a number of challenges in order to survive, since the waters in which it grows are continuously becoming polluted. This is an organism that grows in a rather complicated and peculiar manner, and this is basically how it goes. The coral polyp, which is actually a multi-cellular animal, bands together with others to form large colonies of millions of these polyps. In order to protect themselves, they produce a protective cover, which is very rich in calcium carbonate; it is into this jacket where it retreats when not feeding or when threatened. The colony grows and forms branches, and when they are many, they form a coral reef.

These protective jackets or ‘condominium complexes’, as the Gemological Institute of America chief gemologist John Koivula calls them, cannot stave off attacks from the Crown of Thorns starfish, which simply sucks out the living polyps from their homes. When water conditions are too harsh for the polyps, they leave their homes. It is these abandoned homes, now simply coral skeletons, which are harvested in order to create the beads, carvings and other adornment items.

Coral, made of pure calcium carbonate, is easily affected by chemicals, perfumes, body acids and detergents, which eat away at it. This is the reason why gemologists, dealers and jewelers suggest that any coral item has to be cleaned periodically, using mild soap and warm water. There are other coral varieties, especially from the Mediterranean, which are much softer and therefore need to be polished once again after every few years.

The red sales in the setting sun

There are those coral species that are resistant to the wear of acids and chemicals. According to one coral specialist from Los Angeles, the toughest coral species come from the Sea of Japan, which also produces true Ox-Blood coral. He says that although you can find red coral in the Mediterranean, it is not as tough as that which comes from the Japanese waters.

The Taiwan people have now become the main harvesters of coral from the Japanese waters, which were once a purview of the Italian coral craftsmen and carvers. Today, the Japanese fish and wildlife authorities have placed strict regulations on how much coral can be harvested from the Sea of Japan, and this has greatly reduces the fishing activities in these waters.

With the reduced fishing in Japan, the Mediterranean is the only other major source of coral, and was once also polluted and heavily fished, that it was on the way to becoming a depleted source of red coral. This is one of the reasons why deep-red and ox-blood coral has become so scarce on the market. This drop in the supply of these two coral varieties has driven the prices upwards. In order to get a fine 18-inch strand bearing 8 to 9 mm corals, one may have to part with thousands of dollars.

Among connoisseurs of coral, it is not only the deep red variety that is truly cherished, but they also love the blue-pink shades which are by far lighter in weight. These are called angel skin, and they are slightly more reasonable, in price, than the ox-blood.

Since the red colors are the most popular, there is a lot of treatment of this gem. Those which are harvested with a white color are dyed reddish, although experienced dealers and buyers can tell the difference from the natural ones. There are some people who are taking shavings of coral and binding them chemically, before selling them off as natural coral. Although the level of reconstitution of coral has not reached the levels of turquoise, importers fear that the practice will increase, as the supply of genuine red coral dwindles and prices go up. Some dealers say that they do not mind these reconstituted coral specimens, but they should be sold as reconstituted coral and not passed off as genuine coral.



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