Confessions of a Garnet Junkie
Written by Kathy Staples
Most of you who wear fine gemstone jewelry already know something about garnets. Dark red garnets, faceted or cabochon, were the fashion darlings of the Victorian age, roughly the late 1830s through the end of the 19th century. Incorporated with other gemstones or as stand-alones in rings, earrings, brooches, and pendants, these rich red stones (varieties of pyrope and almandine) epitomized friendship and fidelity in love.
Much of this jewelry has survived, worn by heirs and sold by fine jewelers specializing in antique pieces. My first contact with garnets was in the former context: my mother gave me a Bohemian garnet ring loaded with flashing, faceted, deep red stones. I was hooked. I purchased more pieces, both antique and modern.
Imagine my surprise some 35 years later to discover that garnets aren’t just red! Gemstone quality garnets are available in a rainbow of colors from deep rich purple to sparkling yellow, flashy orange, mint green, emerald green, and even color-changing blue. Well, my collection opportunities instantly expanded!
An 18k yellow gold “New Arch” ring set with citrine arches and
6 tsavorite garnets, designed and made by llyn strong
The garnet family comprises six species: pyrope, almandine, spessertine, grossular, andradite, and uvarovite. All species have the similar silicate crystalline form but differ in chemical composition. The minerals (iron, calcium, magnesium, chromium, vanadium, and aluminum) present in each stone determine the stone’s color. For example, various reds can be found in all but the uvarovite species. Purple is usually pyrope, but some almandine gems have purple hints. Gems in shades of pink can be found in pyrope, andradite, and grossular species. Yellow garnets are in the andradite species. Fiery orange, from mandarin to orange-red to brownish red, are represented in both the grossular and spessartine species. A wide selection of greens, from mint to grass to emerald, are represented in grossular, andradite, and uvarovite. Uvarovite, present only as drusy (a coating of crystals on a matrix), exhibits a dark emerald hue. Color-change blue is a rare form of pyrope-spessartine. What a smorgasbord of colors!
For history buffs—garnet is one of the oldest known gemstones. Pyrope, almandine, and spessartine garnets were prized in the ancient world; surviving examples date as early as about 2,000 B.C. In the Etruscan, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods, besides their use in personal adornment, garnets were popular for use as intaglios, or seal stones. Objects with garnet inlay were available to large portions of the European population until about A.D. 800. It is likely that the trade links in garnet with Sri Lanka and India became disrupted, but at about this time, garnet inlay was confined to use by the exceptionally wealthy and the church. This inlay is called garnet cloisonné: sliced platelets of garnets were combined with glass and other shards in a gold framework to produce jewelry as well as official and church objects. By the 16th and 17th centuries, garnets were being used as cures. For example, in the 1600s, Londoners fastened small carbuncles (the contemporary word for garnet cabochons) to the forehead with a strip of cloth to cure anything from watery eyes to headaches to melancholy. In the early modern period and throughout the 18th century, garnets were so abundant that they were used in moderately priced jewelry for all ranks of buyers.
Lotus Garnet and Diamond Earrings – designed and made by llyn strong
Garnet is the birthstone for January. If you are shopping for yourself or a loved one—remember that garnet is the gemstone of love—consider a tsavorite, demantoid, or Mali garnet. All of these garnet types are various hues and shades of green. A mandarin garnet, as its name implies, is an intense orange type. For a more Victorian-age look, in addition to the deep red pyrope species, there is a vivid purple type, the pink-rose to raspberry red Rhodolite type, and delicate pink Malaya and lotus types.
Author – Kathy Staples
Noel Adams, “The Garnet Millennium: The Role of Seal Stones in Garnet Studies,” Gems of Heaven: Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity, A.D. 200-600, ed. Chris Entwistle and Noel Adams, British Museum, 2011.
Museum of London, entry for “Group of garnets cut ‘en cabochon’: 16th – 17th century.” Viewed online 01-08-2020 at www.museumoflondonprints.com