Navajo coral jewelry is highly prized. For the Navajo the four subterranean worlds are influenced by four precious metals:turquoise, white shell, red stone(yolici) and abalone. Yolici, "red pearls",is what the Navajo call coral. The coral is used by the Navajo primarily for ornamentation and not for ceremonies. Red is generally taboo in Navajo ceremonies, but the fact remains that Navajo coral jewelry is highly valued around the world, and among the Navajo.
Marine coral includes several species. Coral looks like hardened tubes or branches. It is composed of hard calcium carbonate. The skeletons of coral form reefs in the Mediterranean and some parts of the Western Pacific. It has a pinkish to bright red color. The 10% of coral that is fit for jewelry use usually has a dull surface, but can be polished to a glossy shine.
The Navajo and other Native Americans used a reddish spiny oyster shell in their jewelry, but did not know about coral until the Spanish introduced it. It was re-introduced in the 19th century to Native Americans, when a group of businessmen started to import coral and other things from Europe. The founders of Native American trading posts encouraged various Southwestern tribes to use new techniques in their jewelry making, which included using coral. The Navajo and other tribes, began to use coral in making earrings, rings, bracelets, pendants, buckles and horse bridles.
Coral rapidly became an important resource for tribes like the Zuni and Navajo. In the 1040s it was traded for things like horses, used as a pawn pledge and passed down as an heirloom from one generation to the next. Coral was seen as a sign of honor and position. Chee Dodge, the first spokesperson of the Navajo Tribal Council, owned a long striking coral bead necklace of an intense red.
The widespread destruction of coral reefs led to a ban on harvesting coral. This has made coral harder to find, and coral is sometimes taken out of older pieces to set in new pieces. Red plastic beaded necklaces are sometimes sold on the market as "coral necklaces", so buyers must be careful.
Despite shortages of coral,Navajo coral jewelry is still highly prized by the Navajo and around the world. The beautiful color of coral has led people to value it for centuries, and it will continue to garner attention. Navajo coral jewelry is special, and if a person is lucky enough to have some of it, they will understand why this is so!