Black Coral – Value
Larry asked the value of some black coral he found in an estate.
I’ll have a go at answering this question, but you all must understand there are many many variables in determining the value of black coral ranging from the kind of coral it is, to the color (yes there are many colors of black coral), where it came from and whats been done with it to name a few.
Without going into too much detail, lets start with what kind of coral it is. Some months ago I was at a gem show and noticed a dealer selling ‘black coral’. I stopped by to check it out. There were boxes of fragments out, all displaying 2-3′x1-1.5′ pieces all nice jet black. But, when I hefted one, I new it was a fake. It has heavy, not light and wispy like true black coral. I challenged the dealer who was asking a ridiculously low price and admitted (with a bit of conjolling) that it was hard (calcareous) coral dyed black. Value, $5 a piece. I bought two just to have a reference.. Sure enough I ground a small nub off and it was white inside!!!
Next is it Antipatharian or Gorgonian? The former is usually (not always but most of the time) a deep water coral and is considered by some (mistakenly I believe) to be the only true black coral. The latter is always shallow water coral and is what I work with as it is readily available on Florida’s beaches. The former is quite expensive BECAUSE it is deep water and its collection is very very highly controlled. I used to get some now and then from divers in Hawaii but can find very little on the market now. I did see some searching today priced at $10 for 50 carats! That’s about 10 grams (a piece roughly 1/4″ thick by 5″ long. Most of the Antipatharian coral is siphoned off to the big makers like Maui Divers or Bernard Passman.
The Gorgonian blacks are more readily available and therefore not as valued. Not that they are that much different in their content or make-up….they are essential both skeletons of the coral colony, both made primarily of protein, most are usually black or brown in color, same hardness, same structure (rings like a tree – though Antipatharian rings usually are a bit wider than Gorgonian) virtually the same specific gravity, etc, etc. The only difference, perhaps is in the nature of the taxology of the animal, the Gorgonian is an ‘octocoral’ because the animal has 8 septa (some say all black coral has 8 septa) but lately I have seen references saying the Antipatharian has only 6 septa which means it shouldn’t be considered a true black coral!!!?? Go figure!! Sorry for rambling, but you see there is a difference in the value based on the above.
Now, some Gorgonian black coral ain’t even black (remember we are only talking about the skeleton here because the animal ((when its alive)) that inhabits the outside can be any color of the rainbow). It can also be various shades of both brown and black. There are sea plumes, considered Gorgonian black coral because the animal has 8 septa, that actually produces a skeleton of beautiful bundles of brownish fibres that take on a golden color when polished. It is much tougher than Gorgonian and can be difficult to work with due to the sharp spines along the main stems. It is also harder to bend and shape. And the list goes on.
How can you tell the difference? Well, if it hasn’t been smoothed and polished, the skin of Antipatharian coral has a rough texture I equate to shark skin or medium sand paper. If you can see them, the rings are often wide and separated. Sometimes you will see finished jewelry with white rings. That is actually polish compound left there to define the rings.
Gorgonian coral rough has a relatively smooth skin, the rings are thin and usually well packed together with a very small brown core that can be hollow at times.
In either case, if its been smoothed and polished you will not be able to tell the difference!!!
For a rough medium tree (a main truck of about 1/4″ and overall length of 10″) of Gorgonian with long, nicely shaped limbs and two secondary branches, I usually charge from $5-10. When the main trunk is wider, longer, more branches, etc, good solid black color with no problems the price can go upwards of $20. Select pieces that are cut for specific purposes can be worth $2-5. Antipatharian coral of same size and quality can go upwards of several hundreds of dollars. So you see it is important to know what you have!!
I could go on and on but I think you get the picture. Before actually evaluating what you have Larry, do some on -line research to see whats currently out there.
Of course, processed coral is a whole different ball game, especially if its been made here in the States and not done by some kid in Timbuktu working for $1 a month. There is a lot of ‘trinket-ware’ out there and tons of beads, but true pieces of jewelry made with black coral (especially if its not just a little slice added to $10k worth of diamonds and gold) can be very exciting and worth a considerable sum due to the hand work needed to process, design, shape and polish the coral.
Good luck with your coral and I hope this might also help others out there. Cheers, Coralnut – Don