The use of coral in jewelry goes back to the pre-climate change era, when coral harvesting permits weren’t necessary, when CITES and US Fish and Wildlife didn’t exist, when the global temperature was a few degrees cooler than it is now. Tibetans were some of the first people to make salmon-colored and red coral popular by imported it from the Mediterranean sea (it is now illegal to harvest coral from the Med), using beads with surface fissures that were not anywhere near perfectly smooth. With countries like Abu Dhabi and China buying more coral jewelry than ever, we must now turn our attention to curbing people’s appetite for the unsustainable gem.
Jewelers aren’t coral’s only enemy; fisherman, pollution, canal-digging, rise in sea temperature (causing coral bleaching), its use in medicine, other decorative use and succumbing to disease are some of the others. Coral, like pearls, are animal-derived gems. Coral is classified as an animal, it’s a marine invertebrate made up of a group of polyps which can sexually or aesexually reproduce. It sustains a marine ecosystem of thousands of different species.
Natural coral comes in different hues; the most popular is the red fire coral color, then blue, pink and black color. Its growing popularity in jewelry was first noted in the early 1900s Art Nouveau period when color was being added to jewelry. Natural coral prices have risen several thousand percent, since then as it has become endangered (listed under the Stylasteridae family in Appendix II of CITES).
The jewelry industry has collectively said that they want to move toward sustainability- sustainable gems, sustainable mining practices, sustainable jewelry. The use of coral in jewelry is not sustainable in any way. Synthetic coral is one of the answers if we are to save the oceans and their precious marine life.
Exalted jewelry houses such as; Cartier, Tiffany, David Webb, Bucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels, Verdura, and many more have new coral pieces floating around and many showing up in auction houses like Sotheby’s and 1stdibs.com, which describes its coral pieces, “…The increasing price of coral, make the jewel a good intrinsic coral gemstone investment over time. We remember that the size of the beads and the degree of perfection determines value of coral. Because it is difficult to find large pieces of coral, the bigger the beads the more they will cost. Because of the difficulty of finding fine coral, and the high percentage wasted during workmanship, coral that is crafted has a higher value than gold.” Nobody is arguing that coral isn’t beautiful, but at what cost?
One solution is that responsible conscious jewelers who own coral stock must now liquidate their dead stock as many have done and not replace it. One might even argue that they should donate the proceeds to coral-conservation and re-population causes. This is one solution, although it can’t make up for the pillaging of coral reefs over the last century, it is a positive step in the right direction. Another solution is using synthetics- by dying coral imitations like bone or plastic coral colors in order to keep the beloved coral aesthetic alive. Whatever the solution may be, 3000 square kilometers of living reef are lost every year. Can coral still be worn as beautiful jewelry, with its wearers knowing that harvesting coral is fast-tracking it to extinction? The answer and the solution lies within the jewelry industry’s hands, as scientists continue the fight to save coral globally.