Native American Jewelry Materials – Coral History

Do you know how far back the use of coral by native Americans dates? I am thinking they would have acquired it by trade, though I don’t know from whom. Kathleen

Good question. Red coral (Corallium Rubrum) comes from certain areas, such as the Mediterranean, where the specific water temperature and conditions allow coral to thrive. Coral is a hardened tube or branch. Only about 10% of coral is considered jewelry quality.

Santo Domingo Branch Coral Necklace by James and Doris Coriz

Santo Domingo Branch Coral Necklace by James and Doris Coriz

Coral comes in shades from blood-red to orange to pink to white.

Vintage Native American Orange Coral Cluster Bracelet

Vintage Native American Orange Coral Cluster Bracelet

Although coral has been used by Stone Age peoples as long as 30,000 years ago to decorate sepulchers (burial vaults), Native American artists have only used coral for the last 600 years.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they brought with them “blood coral” from the waters of Spain and Italy.

Santo Domingo peoples first used coral in necklaces, as wampum (trade beads). The Hopi and Zuni strung coral beads alternating with other beads such as jet, turquoise and spiny oyster for dances and ceremonies.

Coral Treasure Necklace by Navajo Tommy Singer

Coral Treasure Necklace by Navajo Tommy Singer

Later silversmiths cut coral into pieces to set into rings, bracelets, belts, buckles, pendants and earrings.

Vintage Turquoise and Coral Native American Pendant

Vintage Turquoise and Coral Native American Pendant

Coral is often called “red gold” by some artists and the bright red Mediterranean coral is rare today.   Here is an example of a vintage bolo tie with some really nice pieces of coral and below the bolo is a highly collectible set of inlay by Paula Panteah.

Vintage Navajo Bolo Tie

Vintage Navajo Bolo Tie

Vintage Inlay Bracelet by Zuni artist Paula Panteah

Vintage Inlay Bracelet by Zuni artist Paula Panteah

Because Mediterranean red coral is very rare today, bamboo coral, family Isididae, which is another type of branch coral, and yellowish tan in color, is often dyed red and used in Santo Domingo, San Felipe and Navajo multi-strand coral necklaces.

10 strand coral necklace by San Felipe artist Frank Ortiz

10 strand coral necklace by San Felipe artist Frank Ortiz

Coral beads symbolize success and social prominence.

10 strand Coral and Turquoise Necklace by San Felipe artist Frank Ortiz

10 strand Coral and Turquoise Necklace by San Felipe artist Frank Ortiz

Read more about coral in my previous post.

6 thoughts on “Native American Jewelry Materials – Coral History

  1. Thank you for this interesting history. I did not know that coral was sometimes dyed to achieve the red color. And I did not know that Mediterranean coral is becoming rare.

    This post inspired me to read more about Mediterranean coral. I learned that over-fishing and warming waters have contributed to its decline.

    Research of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Mediterranean have found that even 30 years is not enough time for coral to reach the size that was observed in the 1960s.

    Kathleen

  2. I understand trawling, a method of fishing that drags a net slowly behind a boat, often across the bottom of the ocean floor is particularly devastating to coral.

    Also interesting is the valuable information that coral can give us about the past, like trees can……from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo_coral

    Scientists also found an area of dead coral, about 10,000 square feet and more than 2,000 feet deep. The cause of death of the coral community is unknown but it is estimated to have occurred several thousand to perhaps over a million years ago.

    Deep sea bamboo coral provides the ecosystems to support deep sea life and also may be among the first organisms to display the effects of changes in ocean acidification caused by excess carbon dioxide, since they produce growth rings similar to those of a tree and can provide a view of changes in the condition in the deep sea over time. Some bamboo coral can be especially long-lived; coral specimens as old as 4,000 years were found at the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, giving scientists a window into the ocean’s past. One scientist said the coral provided “4,000 years worth of information about what has been going on in the deep ocean interior”

  3. Pingback: Native American Materials – Spiny Oyster « Native American Jewelry Tips

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