Object: Necklace

E/2011/1/1
Coral necklace
North America: Southwest
ca. 1980’s
Materials: Coral, metal

This necklace is made from pieces of red coral (Corallium rubrum), sometimes also called Noble coral, Precious coral, or Mediterranean red coral. Though it is often used and thought of as a type of rock, coral is actually made of many tiny animals called coral polyps. The material used for items like this necklace is actually the made of thousands of tiny skeletons from these animals. Coral polyps are invertebrates, meaning they do not have a spine, instead they use calcium carbonate from seawater to build a hard covering around much of their bodies. These skeletons grow and expand with each generation of coral polyps, to form branches. Oddly enough these stoney looking creatures are related to jellyfish! The calcium carbonate the coral polyps use to make their skeletons is actually a whitish-gray color. The color of the coral actually comes from zooxanthellae, a single celled organism that has formed a symbiotic relationship with the coral. Their primary function is to help the coral harvest light for use in photosynthesis, in exchange for a place to live, the addition of color is simply a byproduct of this relationship. Different types of zooxanthellae produce different colors, and different varieties of coral produce different shaped branches. Red coral, like that used in the necklace above, is made by a type of coral polyp that produces branches in a fan shape.

Coral has been a popular gemstone for jewelry in many cultures for thousands of years. It has even been found inlaid in sculpture, ornaments, and jewelry as early as the Iron Age in Celtic tombs throughout Europe. Coral is also considered good luck in parts of Asia and is often used in traditional Buddhist and Hindu ritual items. Red coral is not native to the Western hemisphere and would have been introduced in North America as a trade item no earlier than the 1500s. However, the use of coral has become a staple of southwestern Native American jewelry making. The red color of the coral has become an important part of Native southwestern design, where it is sometimes equated with one of the four quadrants or cardinal directions.

Coral populations in the Mediterranean are now rapidly declining, this is partly due to its widespread and prolonged use in art, jewelry, but also due to damage from commercial fishing and pollution. There are currently no international measures in place to protect this type of coral but its use is now regulated in the United States and the European Union has recently banned the use of dredging equipment for its harvest. Below you will find a video discussing how Tiffany & Co. is trying to help preserve coral in the wild by refusing to use it in their jewelry.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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