The start of the new year means resolutions and quite often new gym memberships. What it also means, is a new birthstone for the January babies; garnet!
The name garnet comes from the Latin for ‘Garanatus’ meaning ‘seedlike’ - many think this is a reference to pomegranate and it’s seeds. It makes sense as looking at pomegranate seeds you can envision a red sparkling gem. Garnet is a gem with an incredible history and background. In fact, garnet is so durable that the remains of garnet jewellery have been found dating back as far as the Bronze Age. Other references go back to 3100 BC when the Egyptians used garnet in their inlays, carvings and jewellery. Egyptians believed that garnet was the Symbol of Life - very apt considering it falls into the New Year month. Garnets were placed into talismans and given to warriors for protection. Sometimes the talismans were used by people who wanted to ward off the plague and pestilence. Some ancient healers would place garnet in wounds and praise it’s healing powers. Garnet’s have been a popular gem throughout history - the gem was found as beads in a necklace worn by a young man in a grave that dates back to 3000 BC - this is testimony to the durability of the stone.
Egyptian jewellery found with garnets at the Met Museum
Garnets have been seen and associated with notable people throughout history - the King of Saxony is said to have had a garnet of over 465 carats and Plato had his portrait engraved on a garnet! It even has it’s own story within Greek Mythology. In the tale of Hades and Persephone, Hades gifts Persephone a pomegranate before she leaves him, to ensure her quick return, binding them to each other from whatever distance. Because of this, historically garnets have been given to loved ones when embarking on a journey to promise safe return. Often garnets would have engraved lions on them which was said to protect and preserve health, cure the wearer of all disease, bring him honours and guard him against all the possible perils when travelling. It is also said to to warn the wearer of approaching danger, if the garnet loses it’s shine and lister, it’s a sign of coming danger.
There are many confusions about garnets and the word ‘carbuncle’. For a long time garnets got mixed up with other red gems such as rubies and spinels. These were lumped together with any other red gemstones and given the name ‘carbuncles’. The name comes from the Latin word ‘carbunculus’ meaning small hot coal. The name carbuncle is no longer used when referring to the red gems but many carbuncles have since been identified as garnets, leading garnets to now be closely associated with the word and several myths of mysteriously glowing red gems. In the short story ‘The Great Carbuncle’ (1837), a group of adventurers seek a legendary gem in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, that shines with a red light so brilliant it could ‘make a noonday out of midnight’. In the story of Noah’s Ark a ‘precious stone’, believed to be a garnet, guides Noah through the year of the flood when the sun and moon aren't shining. The stone shone ‘more brilliant by night than by day, so enabling Noah to distinguish between day and night’. The Ancient Greeks called garnets ‘nuktalopos’ meaning ‘lamp stone’ which backs up the story of Noah’s Ark as they believed wearing a garnet around your neck would give you the ability to see in the dark.
“The Great Carbuncle,” oil on canvas by William Sidney Goodwin (1833-1916)
During medieval times, garnets were thought to offer protection against the plague, poisons and bad dreams. It was also said that they would stimulate and lift the heart - helping to cure depression or sadness and keep away evil thoughts. It was also thought that they could heal blood diseases, haemorrhages, indigestion, sore throats and diseases of the liver - perhaps aptly named after the stone resembling blood. The belief that garnets could shield wearers from harm and heal their diseases or wounds spread quickly and Saxon and Celtic Kings began favouring garnet inlaid jewellery for these supposed properties. According to tradition, King Solomon wore garnets into battle and was thought to be one of the four precious stones given to King Solomon by God. The relationship between garnets and blood has also led religious groups to associate garnets with the blood of Christ and it’s for this reason that garnets are often shown in a cross. Due to the associations of garnet and blood it became associated with the ancient ideas of the life giving powers of uterine blood. The pomegranate is also sometimes used as a symbol of the womb - for these reasons there were some periods in history where it was thought that only women could wear garnets due to their connections with fertility and life giving power.
A necklet with a pendant in two stages, garnets set in silver floral openwork, made in England, c.1760-80
Garnets briefly fell out of favour after 1820 but experienced a revival around the 1870s when ‘Holbeinesque’ jewellery (Renaissance inspired pendants and earrings) saw garnets set in colourful, champlevé enamelled frames alongside other gems like chrysolite and diamond. This was the ‘grand period’ of jewellery and the rich, bold colour of garnets were the perfect gem for this, creating a statement piece for a lot of people. However, Victorian pieces are identifiable for being lighter and usually set in a lower carat of gold and the work is not quite as fine as that of the Georgian era. In 1853 demantoid - a bright green garnet - was discovered in the Russian Urals. By 188- it was set into jewellery all across Europe, including in the works of Faberegé. The bright green gems were perfect for creating reptilian jewellery or insect designs. This helped create the surge of popularity in brooches shaped like various creatures including, frogs, snakes, lizards and dragonflies.
Pendant cross, made of pierced gold set with faceted garnets in high conical mounts, hanging from a matching plaque.
In order to look after your garnet jewellery you will need to clean it with warm soapy water and a soft brush. Always make sure you rinse the stone well after washing it. Ultrasonic treatments may also be used for garnet expect the demantoid variety. Do not steam clean your garnet, as with other stones one should take care of their garnet and protect it from harsh temperatures and chemicals.