This study presents a new approach to coral thermometry that deconvolves the influence of water temperature on skeleton composition from that of “vital effects”, and has the potential to provide estimates of growth temperatures that are accurate to within a few tenths of a degree Celsius from both tropical and cold-water corals. Our results provide support for a physico-chemical model of coral biomineralization, and imply that Mg2+ substitutes directly for Ca2+ in biogenic aragonite. Recent studies have identified Rayleigh fractionation as an important influence on the elemental composition of coral skeletons. Daily, seasonal and interannual variations in the amount of aragonite precipitated by corals from each “batch” of calcifying fluid can explain why the temperature dependencies of elemental ratios in coral skeleton differ from those of abiogenic aragonites, and are highly variable among individual corals. On the basis of this new insight into the origin of “vital effects” in coral skeleton, we developed a Rayleigh-based, multi-element approach to coral thermometry. Temperature is resolved from the Rayleigh fractionation signal by combining information from multiple element ratios (e.g., Mg/Ca, Sr/Ca, Ba/Ca) to produce a mathematically over-constrained system of Rayleigh equations. Unlike conventional coral thermometers, this approach does not rely on an initial calibration of coral skeletal composition to an instrumental temperature record. Rather, considering coral skeletogenesis as a biologically mediated, physico-chemical process provides a means to extract temperature information from the skeleton composition using the Rayleigh equation and a set of experimentally determined partition coefficients. Because this approach is based on a quantitative understanding of the mechanism that produces the “vital effect” it should be possible to apply it both across scleractinian species and to corals growing in vastly different environments. Where instrumental temperature records are available, a Rayleigh-based framework allows the effects of stress on coral calcification to be identified on the basis of anomalies in the skeletal composition.