Coral has lived many lives: ancient Mediterranean amulet, favoured souvenir of 19th-century grand tourists, the colour of Italian summers in the ’60s and the jet-set ’70s. It’s also one of the earliest organic materials – like mother-of-pearl, mammoth bone, wood, beetle wing and seeds – that are underpinning a new jewellery craze. Until recently, coral had been underplayed in this group, caught up – erroneously, it seems – in concern for the oceans and the conservation of marine life in which coral reefs play such a vital role.
But, as I discovered earlier this year, in conversation with the “coral king”, Enzo Liverino of Liverino 1894, there is a widespread misconception about precious – or “noble” – coral. The gemstone used in the very finest of fine jewellery doesn’t, in fact, come from endangered coral reefs at all; it is an entirely different species. Coral as we know it is the exoskeleton of the coral polyp, a marine invertebrate of which there are some 7,300 species. Precious coral, of the sort used in fine jewellery and now painstakingly defined by CIBJO, the World Jewellery Confederation (known as the United Nations of the jewellery industry), comes from a specific group comprising a small number of these species that typically grow in very deep water in tree-like branches, individually isolated one from another – unlike reef-building coral, which grows in more shallow waters and develops the ecosystem and distinctive structure we generally associate with coral.
Different varieties of precious coral may be found in waters around Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Hawaii – but the deep-red, glossy Mediterranean variant is considered the most desirable and sought-after on the market today and, according to Enzo Liverino, completely “healthy” and sustainable. Moreover, since the establishment of a special Coral Commission in 2014, the supply chain for precious coral – from fishing and harvesting through trading and fashioning – is now regulated and protected, in many cases by national law as well as by the wildlife conservation institutions with whom the Commission collaborates. Precious or gem-grade coral is not included in the endangered species listed by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora); the so-called “common coral” – far less precious, often dyed and used for cheaper accessories – is being monitored. “More safeguards are being put in place,” says Rui Galopim de Carvalho, vice-president of CIBJO’s Coral Commission. “Two decades ago, fishing of precious corals was not nearly as restricted and protected as it is today.”
While the regulations and classifications for dealing in coral are complex and technical, with sustainability credentials and traceability now standard and sources protected, “red gold” is poised to make a stunning comeback, bringing a hot-blooded Mediterranean élan, sensuality and sunny disposition to contemporary designs.
Today’s jewellers inherit a rich and mystical heritage. Ovid wrote that coral formed when blood from Medusa’s severed head fell onto seaweed, exerting its power to petrify. Throughout history it has been associated, through its colour, with blood and living organisms – it was thought to flow with vitality (“lifeblood”) – and invested with spiritual and healing properties; often depicted in Renaissance paintings and kept, in its natural branch form (to retain its powers) in cabinets of curiosities, or Wunderkammern. The Victorians even set it into babies’ silver rattles to ward off evil.
Specialists such as Enzo Liverino, who is president of CIBJO’s Coral Commission, have worked tirelessly to protect and nurture the extraordinary bio-mineral that has been the lifeblood of his family business, based in the coral-working capital of Torre del Greco near Naples, for five generations. And he has been instrumental in its resurgence in the market. When Christina Assael, CEO of the celebrated New York-based pearl company Assael, met Liverino five years ago, she instantly fell in love with coral, drawn by its connection to the sea. She bought his entire cache of old and extremely rare Angel Skin coral – the pale-blush/shell-pink coral found in Japanese waters and now closely monitored and regulated – and today works closely with him. A fellow member of the Coral Commission, she also sells Liverino’s coral to American designers and retailers: his magnificent strands of beads can be found in Neiman Marcus and Saks.
A fine necklace of coral beads, perfectly matched in colour, tone and surface quality, can take years to collect and assemble. Under the design direction of its senior vice-president, Peggy Grosz, Assael also creates its own jewellery, setting Angel Skin coral with coloured stones, and pairing Mediterranean coral beads with onyx in long sautoirs. The Bubble collection, created for Assael by American goldsmith Sean Gilson, includes earrings and rings designed as clusters of smooth Sardinian coral beads.
Grosz believes we are seeing a real renaissance of the material. “It’s a combination of the importance of colour in jewellery, as designers dive deeper into expressions of colour, and the quest for unusual, natural materials – together with the fact that a $1m strand of the best coral is more wearable than, say, $50,000 diamond earrings.” Coral also features prominently in the limited series of Cartier’s architectural, articulated collection Clash de Cartier, paying homage to Jeanne Toussaint, the legendary directrice of high jewellery who introduced the material to enhance the sculptural, three-dimensionality of her daring ’30s designs.
David Webb, American society jeweller of the ’60s and ’70s, was famous for his work with carved coral. Today, the company states that it uses only what was accumulated by Webb himself prior to his death in 1975 or, if necessary, buys antique coral on the secondary market. “We repurpose 18th- and 19th-century materials, such as old bead necklaces, carving them into beautiful shapes to be set in David Webb jewellery designs.”
The material has long been an essential element of Bulgari style too – part of its quintessential Italian affinity with colour. Creative director Lucia Silvestri explains: “We mainly use Mediterranean coral, which I love to combine with stones such as emeralds, amethysts, rubellite and tourmalines. We use darker coral for the Serpenti and Monete collections – and always certified coral sourced from non-endangered species.” Most recently, in the Fiorever necklace of the brand’s Cinemagia collection, the material pays tribute to the colourful exuberance of Capri, with its narrow, flower-filled streets and villa porticos.
For Fabio Salini, one of today’s brightest jewellery talents, a love of coral is in the blood. He uses mainly the Mediterranean kind, reliably sourced from reputable dealers, including Enzo Liverino, to create contrasts of colour, texture and fluidity with the graphic lines of his fiercely modernist matte black carbon-fibre jewels. He, too, is confident and knowledgeable about the sustainability of coral today. “There’s strong control throughout the supply chain. Licences to fish and trade are granted to only a handful of ethical specialists, and production is checked by scientists and conservationists.”
From a creative point of view, he feels sure that the resurgence of appreciation of coral is part of a broader return to organic materials in contemporary jewellery, as designers look for a new expression of this ancient organic material with a strong metaphysical association. “I find coral seductive and lyrical, especially in its natural branch form when it has a sort of wildness. It brings life, emotion, mood and personality to a jewel. It’s alive.”