If I was to choose a favourite material for my jewellery designs, and the jewellery I wear, it would have to be coral.
Despite the age of the pieces I own and use, the brilliant reds and oranges of the antique coral is still as bright as the day it was first set into a jewellery design.
Coral was very popular in the early part of the 19th century, and much of what I own comes from this era, and in particular from France. The ‘Empire’ style of jewellery was refined, classical and not overly ornate. Personal adornment took on a simpler, more refined style after the excesses of the lavish 18th century fashions.
Above you can see three coral buckles or cuff links. They are in various states of completion, with the one on the left having only the coral frame. The centre one is missing its coral centrepiece and the one on the right is complete. It’s rare to find these with all of the coral framing beads intact. There are lots of possibilities with these pieces.
Another example of a coral buckle is shown above. This time the buckle has its mate, as they always came in a pair but it is so hard to find a complete pair these days. This set had a sweet little snake ‘S’ clasp joining the two together and they would have most likely been sewn onto a velvet or cloth belt that was worn just under the breast. This set also features mother of pearl discs that have been carved out on the underside to produce the starburst pattern you see here. This buckle set has been repurposed into earrings. I love the deep red of the coral beads.
Dating to a good 50 years earlier than the buckle earrings, above is a pair of mid-18th century coral, silver and diamond earrings. The coral beads are quite big and of a deep rich salmon colour. The setting is silver, with rose cut diamonds. I think they could do with a clean!
Complete coral necklaces are hard to find, and when you do find one that has large beads, it will be very expensive. Upwards of $1000 for large beads on a long necklace. Coral is often sold by weight. Below is a much less expensive example of an early 19th century coral necklace, this time with numerous strands of coral seed beads. These are tiny little beads made from real coral, and hand cut and drilled. Despite the hours and hours that would have been employed to make this necklace, the coral weight is not substantial and thus the necklace is not overly pricey.
I do also occasionally see coral buckles with little faces cared into the coral. Coral cameos were popular in the late Georgian and Victoria eras, and cameos came in all styles. In the example below the cameo is a in gold plate brass, and is little Aztec style face. The piece came to me as one half of a buckle set – the other half was missing. To create the necklace you see here, I used a French ormolu coral tiara which was missing about half of its coral beads. I harvested the beads, then used the remaining tiara frame to form a collar style necklace. The Aztec cameo piece was affixed onto the collar, I added chain and voila! A very unique necklace made from extremely rare 200-year old elements.
More readily available are coral charms. These are also often sold by weight and therefore the price can vary according to the size of the piece. I like to use coral charms on a charm necklace with other antique elements such as little lockets and mini wax seals. Below is one such example which features a coral branch lucky charm, a carved coral hand charm, a small French wax seal and an 18th century vinaigrette locket. Coral and gold go so well together, and it’s a vary classic colour combination.
Another necklace I created features an unusual coral tassel. You do see a lot of antique beaded tassels with closed looping ends, not the open frayed ends common on most tassels. This lovely little necklace also features an antique wax seal and a tiny mourning locket with woven hair set behind glass on the other side.
I tend to use coral quite sparingly in my designs – mainly because it can be expensive and is quite scarce. Antique coral is only going to get more valuable, so if you want to start collecting something that is not quite as pricey as gold, consider coral…antique of course!