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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Coral Jewelry in the Regency Era

Have you ever looked at nineteenth century portraits and noticed all of the coral jewelry?

Adèle Romany, Portrait of a Lady at a Pianoforte, circa 1808, Museum of Fine-Arts, Boston.

After you’ve looked through a few dozen portraits, you begin to notice the bright red beads everywhere. They adorn fingers, wrists, hair, ears, and necks. Even children are portrayed wearing coral beads.

For thousands of years, Western societies have believed coral to have protective properties. The Romans hung pieces of coral around the necks of their children to protect them from illness and danger, and when worn around a woman’s neck it was a charm against sterility. Portraits from the 16th century through the 19th feature women and children in these red beads.

Coral consists of a mass of skeletons of tiny marine polyps that lived attached to rocks or other objects on the ocean floor. Colors range from orange to vivid red, to salmon and pale pink. It is carved into beads or cameos or is left in its natural state and polished.

In the Georgian era, it became a popular adornment for children and young women, who were thought to be the most vulnerable to illness and thus in need of extra protection.

It was one of the few materials in the Georgian era that were appropriate for day wear, half-dress and full dress. Undress at home might consist of a carved cameo, half-dress might be a necklace of graduated beads, and full dress could be mixed with diamonds and worn with necklaces, bracelets, and hair combs.

In An Appearance of Goodness, Miss Darcy's maid Carew has been asked to tend to Elizabeth since she has arrived at Pemberley without a maid of her own. After a storm that has flooded the entire estate, Elizabeth is dressing for dinner with Carew's help and asks about Carew's ring.

After she arrived at the house, she sat in her room in contemplation for a long while before Carew entered to help her dress.

“I think something simple,” she said quietly when Carew opened the clothes press. “None of us shall be in the mood for finery tonight.”

Normally not one to have her authority challenged, Carew nodded knowingly and went about the business of helping her out of her gown, and each capable tug grated her ring against Elizabeth’s skin.

“You have a fine hoop ring.” Elizabeth refrained from asking if she scraped Miss Darcy with it.

“Miss Darcy does not mind my wearing it, and neither does Mr Darcy,” Carew said sharply, pulling up her sleeves and then tying the laces tightly. “They know I am not above myself.”

“None of us think that.” A lady’s maid, after all, was a valued and senior position, and she answered only to Miss Darcy. Unless her brother asks her to let her maid tend to his friend’s sister-in-law. “And none of them would begrudge you for wearing it.”

“That may be true, but others might.”

To show that she was not such a person, Elizabeth asked, “May I admire it?”

Carew was surprised, but gave a prim little smile and held out her hand. The ring had a delicate split shank and five pieces of pinkish orange coral set very high. That accounted for the light scrapes against her skin whilst Carew worked. The oval coral in the centre was larger than the ones surrounding it.

“It is lovely.”

“It belonged to my mother. She was a maid at Pemberley as I said, before she married. My father bought this for her, and she wore it every day until she died.”

Now that she was dressed, the maid turned her by the shoulders, firmly pushed her forward, and then pressed her into a chair and set to work on her hair. It seemed that whilst Carew was caring, sentimental even, her sternness and efficiency would swiftly overrule any excessive tenderness.

Gold hair pin decorated with a red coral in a gold setting with filigree rosettes c 1785 - c 1800

I put a specific piece of Georgian-era jewelry in every full-length novel I write. Sometimes it might be a gift and other times it has a more significant role. Read An Appearance of Goodness to see what role a coral ring might have on the plot.

Do you own any coral jewelry? Would you wear coral?\

Georgian Jewellry 1714-1830 Dawes and Collings p 51

Portrait of the Children of Lord George Cavendish Thomas Lawrence c 1790

Portrait of Lady Caroline Gordon, Thomas Barber the Elder, c. 1814.

Julie Philipault - Portrait of woman holding a book, 1815

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