The Use of Coral in Native American Jewelry
The color, red, symbolizes many concepts to the American Indians. Some associate it with birth, violence, war, blood, wounds, strength, energy, power, happiness, and beauty. Many Native Americans used red to color depictions of the Thunderbird and lightning, representing power and speed. The Zuni, especially prize the color red, and, when Europeans first began to trade Blood Coral, with its intense red color, with the American Indians, nearly 600 years ago, it rapidly became an important trade item between the two cultures.
As far back as 30,000 years ago, Stone Age peoples used coral to decorate sepulchers, or burial vaults, and the ancient Egyptians used it. However, Blood Coral comes mostly from the Mediterranean Sea, and Native Americans have only had contact with it since the arrival of the Europeans into the New World. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas, Indians used argillite to accent their jewelry and clothing with red. Having a red very dull compared to that of Blood Coral, the Indians were quick to substitute the argillite for coral, once it became available.G23
Although coral seems rock-like, it is actually a calcium carbonate (CaCO3) skeleton produced by coral polyps: tiny marine creatures that live in rich, clean, tropical to sub-tropical shallow waters of the world’s oceans. The coral polyp that produces Blood Coral, the most valued of the corals used in jewelry and other pieces of art, forms branched skeletons reminiscent of small, red trees. The coral polyp deposits calcium carbonate, forming the skeleton that divers harvest for use in artwork.
Many types of coral exist, but the red Blood Coral and pink coral draw the highest price on the market. Corals, though, come in a wide variety of colors, including blue, blush pale pink (Angel Skin Coral), rose, orange, deep red (Ox Blood Coral), black (Conchiolin), and white. The valuable orange red coral, from the Mediterranean Sea has suffered from excessive harvesting and reduced water quality. Today, the red corals come largely from Japan and Australia. Black Conchiolin comes from Hawaii.
The scarcity of Mediterranean red coral has spurred artists to utilize Bamboo Coral, another type of branch coral. It varies from grey through yellowish or tan, and artists dye it red. This type of coral appears in artwork from the Native Americans of Santo Domingo and San Felipe, as well as from the Navajo.G16
Coral has always drawn a high price on the market, and, the early Native American market was no exception. The Native Americans often carved shells into small, disk-shaped beads called, “heishi,” and often used them as spacer beads between more the more precious stones, including coral. According to an article on American Indian Coral,
“Coral beads symbolize success and social prominence. The Native American people consider coral a sign of wealth and status … When you look at early multi-strand coral necklaces, it becomes evident that the wearer added strands of coral as they were able, as their wealth or social standing grew. Once, American Indian artist, Mary Rosetta brought out a few shoeboxes of her “private coral” … [T]his was the equivalent of her savings account.” (Hopkins-Struever, 2015)G24
The high cost of coral comes partially from the harvesting process: diving and collecting in the ocean. Hand collection is costly and has inherent risks. In addition, harvesting and other intrusions, like global warming and pollution, have threatened coral reefs. Coral has become scarcer, and coral collecting opportunities have greatly diminished. Much of the Mediterranean Blood Coral on the market today was collected prior to World War II. As these coral stocks run out, and natural populations recover slowly, if at all, coral prices continue to rise.
Today, a great deal of imitation coral, produced from plastics, glass, bone, and porcelain, have come into the market. Experts distinguish natural coral by its distinctive wood grain texture.
Contributing Author – Jeffery Bacon