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Conference Shines Spotlight on Coral

Explores Conservation and Use in Jewelry and Decorative Arts

Tiffany & Co.’s coral reef-inspired cuff.

Fashion, jewelry, art and science came together at “Coral: Symbol, Substance and Significance,” a three-day conference in New York.

The conference, organized by Initiatives in Art & Culture, was comprised of experts who discussed the delicate nature of coral, and how the fashion and jewelry industry could help benefit the coral and the ecosystems they live in by not using the aquatic animal in jewelry and other decorative objects. It also explored the history of coral’s use in decorative arts such as jewelry and fashion, and addressed the laws and treaties formulated to govern trade in coral. The event took place at CUNY’s Graduate Center at 365 Fifth Avenue, and closed Oct. 31.

Tiffany & Co. chairman and chief executive officer Michael Kowalski was paired with Stephen D’Esposito, president of Resolve and the Earth Solutions Center for a panel. The duo have known each other for years and have worked together on the No Dirty Gold campaign, encouraging mines to modernize and develop environmentally safe and socially responsible manners of mining gold, which is known to be caustic to the environment.

“We believe there’s a moral imperative in terms of sourcing,” said Kowalski, who banned the sale of coral jewelry at Tiffany in 2002. “[A] corporation can be a vehicle for the exercise.”

Kowalski said Tiffany’s clients care about the patrimony of the materials in the jewelry.

“There’s a brand promise that goes with the blue box,” he said. “There’s an expectation of responsible sourcing, whether it’s diamonds, gold or coral.”

Kowalski said banning the sale of coral at Tiffany was a simple and effective thing to do that cost little or nothing to the jewelry retailer’s shareholders. The company now distributes a pamphlet illustrating the firm’s steadfast commitment to the environment and society.

David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, moderated a panel entitled “Coral as Motif and Material in Fashion,” which featured a discussion by jewelry designer Stephen Dweck and Lilly Pulitzer’s design director Janie Schoenborn. The designers cited coral as a major source of inspiration for their work and for fashion in general.

“As an artist and a jeweler, I’m so inspired by the exotic, but you need to respect the planet and work with the materials that you can,” Dweck said. “We’re all going through this process of being more aware now. We relish coral so much and there’s this leftover love affair we have with it, but it is possible to look and not touch.”

Dweck went on to note the image of coral should still be celebrated, as opposed to being a taboo subject. He’ll often create coral-shaped pieces in his jewelry made from resin or glass.

Schoenborn uses a form of coral throughout much of her work at Pulitzer, a 50-year-old brand centered around resortwear and beach-inspired items. She’ll mix coral into a variety of prints and mold plastic coral shapes onto gladiator sandals. Schoenborn noted, however, that with the use of such shapes comes a responsibility of educating consumers on the importance of preserving the actual animal.

“Consumers may have a hard time telling the difference between what is real coral and what is not, so we include a hangtag with a special message. It’s the responsibility of designers to send this message,” Schoenborn said.

In highlighting this responsibility, Pulitzer is partnering with the Ocean Conservancy on a “Coral Me Crazy” collection and recently collaborated with the SeaWeb, the organization that advances ocean conservation by raising public awareness, on its “Too Precious to Wear” coral conservation campaign.