I'm 100% with her on her avoidance of new coral; if anyone tries to sell you new coral that is supposedly "sustainably fished", run, and send them this article from Living Oceans Foundation.
But fake coral can look as lifeless as imitation pearls. It is impossible to replicate the layered structure of genuine coral, just as nacre on a pearl cannot be duplicated on a glass bead.
As an alternative to synthetics, consider buying vintage. Here are several examples from my collection:
Left, an Edwardian coral bead and pendant necklace set with tiny diamonds.
Middle, earrings made by restyling a pair of vintage Italian coral (ca. 1940s) earrings by changing the setting and adding yellow sapphires and baroque pearls.
Right, a huge contemporary Mexican coral ring set in silver. (The dyed, semi-precious coral was sourced from decades-old stock by a local jewelry designer.)
My examples are deep red; however, corals in pinks and oranges are as beautiful and may suit your colouring better. I found several to covet:
A calmly beautiful rope of 7mm angelskin beads from Etsy seller The Victorian Armoire; price, $199:
A pink coral cabuchon, set in a sleek 18k ring, by Van Cleef & Arpels from Beladora (price, $695):
If you buy vintage or antique coral
There are two broad quality levels: gem grade and semi-precious (like that big ring of mine), and quite a difference in price. You can find a summary of coral types and quality here.
Gem-quality coral is lustrous, hard, and dense, so pieces feel weighty.
This Victorian coral and 10k gold ring (price, $650 from Park Avenue Couture) is an example of the price for an antique, unsigned piece. What characer in this ring, which looks as if it might have been worn by Virginia Woolf.
You can see the depth of colour and organic nature that distinguishes it from plastic-y artificial materials. Who would want new, compared to this?
Semi-precious coral, even if antique, is usually colour-enhanced through dyeing and is stabilized or filled, because it is more porous.
But even with semi-precious, when you buy vintage coral, you should be getting coral. Price is often a signal; you cannot buy an "antique Tibetan necklace" of "genuine coral and silver" for double digits, so that eBay listing at $70 is, I am willing to bet, anything from dyed agate to plastic.
When ethics meet aesthetics
While coral, ivory, some types of horn and other materials taken from endangered species or environments receive close attention and treaty protection, depending on various countries' policies, polluting and inhumane conditions persist in gem and precious metal mines worldwide. Therefore, I recommend buying vintage gems and recycling noble metals.
You could forgo such adornments altogether and spend your life in string bracelets and macaroni necklaces, but that is not appealing to many women, me included. Buying consciously or restyling what we have is a liveable compromise.
If I were in the market for a new stone, I would seek ethical gem dealers or ask my jeweler to source such material, but as author and filmmaker Greg Valerio points out on his site, the industry is notoriously resistant to regulation, and even the definition of "fair trade" varies from country to country.
Scroll to the bottom of his enlightening post to see four companies whom he recommends.
Whether it's clothes or food or jewels, we are asking, more and more often, "Where does this come from? At what cost to the environment?" Beauty can co-exist with stewardship, and one way to achieve that is to search for previously-owned treasures.