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Birthstones: January - Garnet

Adding warmth, vibrancy and passion to an otherwise grey and dull wintery morning, people born in January are blessed with Garnets as their birthstone. January may be seen as drab and dull, but with a delectable piece of Garnet jewellery, you can brighten up any outfit. 

Below, we have put together our guide to the January birthstone, exploring this popular and sought after gemstone's history. 

History and Significance of Garnets

Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Garnets

It is no secret that Garnets have a long and convoluted history with humanity. Being one of the earliest gemstones used in jewellery, it is believed that as far back as Ancient Egypt Garnets were being inlaid into jewels and amulets and placed on top of mummified Pharaohs.

Gold Garnet and Agate Necklace and Earrings, 1st Century BC, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In both Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, Garnets remained to be a popular choice, often being used for wax sealing intaglios. Associated with fire, warmth, and action, their glittering appearance is akin to bright burning coals, meaning they were excellent talismans for warriors and kings. In fact, in Ancient Greece, Garnets were actually called “nuktalopos” translating to “lamp stone” because of its inner embers. It is believed that ancient Greeks wore Garnets around their neck to help them see in the dark.


Maecenas Garnet Ring Stone, signed by Apollonios, 1st Century BC, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A stone that clearly possesses vitality, owning and wearing Garnets quickly became a sign of wealth and of noble birth. This meant that they were widely traded around the world, crossing multiple ancient cultures from late Antiquity to the migration period.

Notably, Red Garnets opened up shipments between Rome, Greece, South India, Ancient Sri Lanka and the Anglo Saxons. The Almandine Garnet was very popular amongst Germanic tribes that inhabited Northern Europe, as shown in excavations from Sutton Hoo.

Early Anglo Saxon Gold Garnet Millefiori Purse, Source - The British Museum

The name ‘Garnet’ itself comes from the 14th century Middle English word ‘gernet’ which translates to ‘dark red’. Yet, even more intriguing is that the name Garnet also comes from the Latin ‘granatus’ which is related to the ‘pomum granatum’, or as we commonly know it to be today - the pomegranate. 

Panagiarion with the Virgin and Child and the Three Angels at Mamre (Right) and the Crucifixion and Three Church Fathers (Left), Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, like most gemstones, Garnets possessed plenty of spiritual significance. Garnets were believed to be a happy stone, helping to ward off sorrow and negative emotional energy, and they also were used to help fight against the spread of plague. During this time, Garnets were largely cut in cabochons as it represented Christ’s passion and martyrdom. Garnet’s distinct red colour was akin to blood, making it a fitting symbol for Christian images and reliquaries, especially when depicting the wounds of Christ.

Garnet Reliquary Pendant, ca 1640, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

It wasn’t just in western European cultures that were fascinated by Garnets, but interestingly in Hindu culture, Garnets are associated with female empowerment. This is because Garnets are associated with the first chakra, helping to promote healthy sexual activity. 

Antique Georgian and Victorian Garnets - The Rise of The Perpignan and Bohemian Garnet

Garnet jewellery truly came into its own in the Georgian and Victorian period, becoming the centrepiece for a variety of creations. Large deposits of Garnets were discovered in Bohemia (today Czech Republic) in central Europe in the 16th century, meaning that Garnets quickly became the gem du jour for the 17th and 18th centuries.

A large majority of Georgian jewellery were inlaid with Garnets, regally displayed in flat cuts, maltese crosses, pansies and witches hearts. Like other gemstones, Garnets were also subject to the Georgian fashion of foiling. Purple, red, pink and orange foils were placed underneath the gems, giving them an extra touch of glow and glitter.

Garnet Witches Heart Brooch, ca.1770, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Georgian Flat Cut Garnet Brooch, Source - Lillicoco
One of the most sought after type of Garnets were Perpignan Garnets. These Garnets were exclusively mined in the Perpignan region in France, which bordered Catalonia in Spain. Perpignan Garnets were distinct in their bright rosy glow, and due to past associations with Christ, these Garnets were a favourite amongst Roman Catholic countries, and significantly becoming a symbol for Catalonian culture itself. Rare late 18th and early 19th century Perpignan Garnet creations are a favourite amongst antique collectors, especially as Perpignan Garnets are no longer mined.
18ct Gold Perpignan Garnet Brooch, Source - Lillicoco Sold
Like most trends, Garnets fell out of fashion at the start of the Victorian period as other trends started to emerge like Paste jewellery, Diamond jewellery, Cameos and Enamelling. This was not only due to changing fashions, but also because only small deposits of gemstones could be found.
Italian Gold Garnet Pearl Earring, c.1800-1867, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

However, during the Victorian period, Garnets had a resurgence of popularity after the industrial revolution started to gain traction. There was a renewed interest and sense of nostalgia for the Middle Ages and Renaissance, meaning that jewellers became interested in the mythological power and meaning of gemstones. Notably, during 1870 when the Holbeinesque jewellery trend emerged. These were pendants and earrings that were incredibly ornate, inspired by the Renaissance. Garnets were used in abundance in the Holbeinesque jewellery trend, especially large juicy cabochon Garnets.

Holbein Style Pendant with Garnet Cabochon centre, ca.1860-5, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum 
This sense that Garnets could perfectly render the mystery and magic of former eras led to their rise back to the top spot of gemstones. During the 1880s, Victorian Garnet jewellery was all the rage, epitomising glamour and sophistication.
Not to mention, Gothic influences of moody dramatic silhouettes and candlelight were the perfect backdrop for blood-red Garnet pieces. Fashioned into collar rivieres, brooches, bracelets and rings, Garnets encapsulated the Victorian fascination for all things Gothic. At this point in history, it was the fashion to have Garnets in rose cuts set within low carat Gold, known today in the antique world as ‘Garnet Gold’.

Bohemian Garnet Gold Bangle, Source - Lillicoco

Victorian Garnet jewellery was also incredibly popular due the large deposits found in Bohemia. Although this was found within the 18th century, their distinct style was still pertinent a hundred years later. Bohemian Garnet gems had both excellent clarity and purity, and designs from this period celebrated the gem in all of its juicy and delicious tones, with Garnets set in clusters akin to the pomegranate fruit.

The fashion was to have rose cut and cabochon Garnets closely set together with hardly any metal showing. These were encrusted within floral and celestial designs, taking the form of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches and rings. Many of these pieces were also set within the infamous Garnet Gold too. Today, gemologists classify these Garnets as pyrope Garnets, distinct for their unmistakable inner fire.

Bohemian Garnet Jewellery Collection, Source - Antique's Board 

Yet, it wasn’t just the red varieties of Garnet that were popular in the Victorian period. In 1868, in the Russian Ural mountains, a place revered for its gemstone quality, a bright green variety of Garnet was discovered. Called the demantoid Garnet, this incredibly rare type of Garnet instantly became fashionably amongst the elite. Because of their bewitching hue, these Garnets became fashionable amongst Art Nouveau and Art Deco jewellers at the turn of the century, as well as being the favourite of notable jewellers Louis Comfort Tiffany and Boucheron.

Art Nouveau Demantoid Garnet Diamond Pearl Brooch, Source - The Victoria and Albert Musuem

Vintage Garnets

During the 20th century. Garnets were once again cast aside in favour of precious gemstones like Diamonds, Rubies, Sapphires, Emeralds, glass gemstones like Paste and new emerging materials like Bakelite Plastic and Resin.

You can find a range of vintage Garnet jewellery up until the first World War, especially as cheaper metals became readily available, but after the 1920s, the red variety of Garnets declined, in favour of the green varieties and monochrome gemstones like Onyx. 

During the mid-century, Garnets were once again revived as many jewellers took inspiration from the Victorian period. Plus, as synthetic gemstone technology developed Garnets became cheaper to source.

Vintage Victorian Revival Garnet Cameo Necklace, Source - Pinterest

Although Garnets are still a fashionable gemstone, and more affordable choice than Rubies, their golden age was in the Victorian and Georgian period, which makes these pieces a fantastic collector’s item. Nonetheless, January babies are blessed to have this gemstone as their birthstone, as they can choose between a variety of colours and its readily available as a synthetic gemstone. Plus, as trends are often cyclical, it won’t be long before Garnet jewellery once again makes a comeback.

Victorian Garnet Diamond Gold Suite, c.1860 Source - Bentley & Skinner

What are Carbuncles?

Carbuncles are ostensibly a term that was used in the early medieval and Renaissance period to describe a Garnet. Today, Carbuncle is a term used to describe a red swollen blister on the body (ouch!), and whilst it is a scientific medical term today, we thought it best to talk about the glittering nicer gemstone kind. 

Ancient Greek Carbuncle Earrings, 4th Century BCE, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

As illustrated in our Ruby Birthstone guide, red gemstones like Rubies, Spinels and Garnets were all believed to be the same gemstone at one point, and Carbuncles were a term that was attributed to them as well as Rubies. However, as gemology developed, Carbuncles became a term that were actually exclusively used for Garnets, specifically cabochon Garnets of a deep red colour. 

Indian Gold Carbuncle Heart Bracelet, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Carbuncles were also believed to possess innate magical properties, such as illuminating a dark room (not dissimilar to the believe that Garnets were lanterns in ancient Greece!). The term Carbuncle is widely used within the Bible which translators have come to believe that they mean Garnets. And, Carbuncle has been used within multiple literature texts including Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Shakespeares’ Hamlet, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Difference between Garnets and Rubies

Due to their shared striking tones of deep red, Garnets and Rubies can often be mistaken for one another. Yet, they do possess a range of differences. 

If you look closely between a Garnet and a Ruby, they both have a myriad of undertones. Yet, Garnets contain orange, brown, green undertones, whereas Rubies have purple and blue undertones. 

You can also tell the difference between a Garnet and a Ruby by placing it under a light. Garnets will reflect bands of yellow and green, whereas Rubies will reflect blues and reds because they absorb yellow and green within the colour spectrum. What’s more, within the light you should be able to see that Garnets are singularly refractive and Rubies are doubly refractive. 

One of the main differences however is the hardness between the gemstones. Rubies are a 9 on the Mohs scale, whereas Garnets are between a 6.5 to 7.5. This means that Rubies are a better gemstone for engagement rings as they are far more resistant to scratches and general wear. 

 

To see our Lillicoco collection of antique garnet jewellery, click here