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
Coral comes in shades from blood-red to orange to pink to white.
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
Later silversmiths cut coral into pieces to set into rings, bracelets, belts, buckles, pendants and earrings.
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 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
Coral beads symbolize success and social prominence.
10 strand Coral and Turquoise Necklace by San Felipe artist Frank Ortiz
Read more about coral in my previous post.