The word garnet has roots both in Latin and English. In Latin, granatus means “seed,” and the old English word gernet, which means “dark red,” dates back to the 14th century. Regardless of the dictionary, you are using, either term paints a picture in our heads of this beautiful stone, whose deep pomegranate hue is beloved by gem connoisseurs around the globe. While red garnets are the most popular, garnets come in a medley of colours. This gives January babies an opportunity to show off their individuality with a birthstone that offers plenty of variety.
All garnets have the same physical properties and crystal forms but have different chemical compositions, which result in garnets of many different colours, with blue being the rarest. Some examples of common gems that fall under the garnet category include tsavorite (a green garnet), demantoid (a variety of a green garnet but very rare), spessartine, or spessartite (an orange garnet), and rhodolite (purple-red garnet). According to the Gemmologist Institute of America, there are more than 20 garnet categories, called species, but only five are commercially important as gems. These five are pyrope, almandine (also called almandite), spessartine, grossular (grossularite), and andradite. A sixth, uvarovite, is a green garnet that usually occurs as crystals too small to cut. It’s sometimes set as clusters in jewellery. Most garnets are chemical mixtures of two or more garnet species.
Garnets have been used for adornment going all the way back to the Bronze Age. While we will never know if garnets can be used to prevent plagues or heal warriors, as has been suggested, we do know that both the Egyptians and the Romans felt that it was a worthy stone to set in gold for their nobility. In more “recent” times, garnets were ubiquitous in Victorian jewellery.
The “G” in REGARD rings, the equivalent of the modern-day engagement ring, implied garnet. Garnets were also highly valued in the region of Bohemia. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has in its collection an antique hairpin with Bohemian pyrope garnets from the Czech Republic. Bohemian pyrope got its name from Bohuslav Balbín, sometimes referred to as the “Czech Pliny,” in 1679. Abundant in the region, it was used often in jewellery during this time. In fact, it became so popular that in 1762, Empress Marie Terezie forbids its export. Stonecutting workshops opened in several regions across Bohemia, and pyrope became the country’s mineralogical symbol. While there was never a decline in its popularity, it was only in the mid-20th century that garnets enjoyed a revival.
As we have already learned, garnets can come in many shapes and sizes, one of the largest ever discovered is a 68.82-carat Tsavorite garnet. This stone is also in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
An abrasive stone, garnets can also be used for industrial purposes. Ground-up into powder and mixed with water, it can be strong enough to cut steel. Another utilitarian tool is garnet paper, which is popular among carpenters for sanding natural wood.