In recent years garnet has been endowed with a rather lackluster reputation, known only as January’s semi-precious birthstone. However, garnet has a rich history, serving as the prized possessions of royals, having unique connections to mythology, and physical properties that make them one of the most interesting gemstones.
1. The Word “Garnet” is Etymologically Connected to Seeds
Before delving into the fascinating history of garnet, their very name is imbued with significance. The origin of this gem’s name is the Latin granatum, which passed into medieval English via French, gernat or grenat. Granatum not only referred to the stone but also to pomegranate seeds, connecting the name to its mythology.
2. Garnet Has Mythological Associations
Garnet have an ancient mythology associated with them that pre-dates Christianity by many hundreds of years. According to traditional astrology, garnet was associated with the sun. Yet, quite paradoxically, they were also related to the underworld through the Ancient Greek myth of Persephone. The pomegranate seeds that she ate in the underworld, so similar in color and texture to the stones, caused her to remain there for three to six months of the year.
3. Garnet Comes in Every Color
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Though garnet can be made of many silicate compounds, there are five primary types of garnet that are valued as gems. The traditional deep red garnet is called pyrope and alamandine. The other famous type of garnet called tsavorite, so named for the Tsavo East National Park where they were discovered in 1967, is part of the grossular family of garnet. Other groups include the spessartine and andradite garnet, which come in a variety of shades ranging from vivid mandarin to colorless gems.
4. Garnet Can Also Change Color
It was once thought that garnet came in every color except blue. However, in 1990 blueish-purple garnet were discovered in Madagascar. A blend of different forms of the mineral, these garnet appear blue in daylight and violet in incandescent light. They are the most expensive type of garnet, costing over one million dollars per carat.
5. Garnet Can be Found All Over the World
Throughout much of Western history, garnet were mined primarily in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Today they are found throughout the world. The most brilliant green tsavorite garnet and the flaming orange spessartine garnet are found in East Africa, specifically Kenya, Tanzania, and Madagascar. Garnet are also mined in Brazil, the Indian subcontinent, and the United States.
6. Garnet is Featured in Biblical History
Carbuncles (the obsolete term that once described a garnet when polished to a cabochon, or a stone without facets) had a long pedigree in the Old and New Testaments but they were also re-interpreted throughout the early Middle Ages. With the advent of Christianity, there was a strong move away from ancient myths, and garnet were given an alternate, Christian mythology instead.
These new narratives were recorded in lapidaries (though they had existed since ancient Greece, there is a large surge in their popularity with the beginning of the second millennium CE) Lapidary historian Joan Evans recounts that Bede, Amatus of Monte Cassino, Hildebert, Hrabanus Maurus, Walafrid Strabo, Richard and Hugues de St. Victor all wrote lapidary treatises. These historic authors all base their works on phrases from the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, which includes statements such as Proverbs 3:15 “She is more precious than rubies.”
Isidore of Seville expounded on the gems of the sacred breastplate worn by the High Priest of the Israelites, which was used at times to divine the will of God (Exodus 28:17 and 39:10). This description echoes the wording of the portrayal of the city walls, found in the New Testament, in Revelations 19-21.
In Ezekiel 28:13, man is born “in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle (an alternative name for garnet); and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared.”
Explaining the value of God’s blessing, Isaiah states he “will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles” (54:12). Gregory the Great’s (c.540-604) Evangelia associates different gems with the orders of the angels and carbuncles are associated with the archangels. Any man wearing these was said to invoke the protection of the corresponding celestial being. Carbuncles were also used to imitate droplets of blood, particularly in images of Christ on the cross.
7. Garnet is the State Gemstone of New York
Garnet was designated the state gemstone of New York in 1969. They are found throughout the northern part of the state, the largest mine being the Barton Mine. The largest garnet ever discovered in New York State was unearthed in 1885, in Manhattan. Though the massive brownish gem, weighing a hefty 4.4kh, was discovered in a trench dug for the new sewer system, it was later given the more appealing title of the “subway garnet.”
8. The World’s Largest Polished Garnet is Huge
Meanwhile, the largest polished garnet (5,696 carats) was discovered in Orissa, India, and carved into a spectacular Fabergé-esque egg by master lapidarist Manfred Wild in 2014. Though it remained unsold, it has been given an estimated worth of $300,000-$400,000.
9. Garnet in a Recent Anglo-Saxon Burial
Garnet was important to various ancient cultures. Recently, archeologists in England discovered an Anglo-Saxon burial horde, which included gold jewelry adorned with garnet. Scholars posit that the 1,300-year-old garnet jewelry was religiously significant to its owner.
10. Garnet, A Royal Gem
Though perhaps not as common in modern royal jewelry collections, one significant tiara features garnet. The Roseborg Tiara, made in the 1930s for Eleanor Margaret Green for her marriage to Prince Viggo of Denmark. It is adorned with diamonds, pearls, and garnet, stylized into swags of flowers and foliage. This kokoshnik-stylist tiara, a design inspired by traditional Russian headdress, was part of the extended Danish royal family’s vault until 2014, when it was auctioned off for more than $275,000.