Assortment of rough garnets. Image from http://www.neweragems.com/world_of_garnets.asp
I started researching garnets because they are January’s birthstone, but now that I have seen their beautiful colors, these previously “Plain Jane” gems are now some of my favorites. Garnets are a group of related minerals with slightly different chemical compositions. The six main classifications are Almandine, Pyrope, Spessartite, Grossular, Andradite, and Uvarovite, and within each of these groups are stones with fun names like Gooseberry (a light green), and Mandarin (a bright orange). There are even pretty black Melanite garnets, and I just purchased a nice set of bright green Tsavorite garnets that I hope to use soon. Garnets can have varying hardness (6.5-8.5 Mohs), but luckily for me, they can be fired in silver clay pieces.
Almandine is the most common garnet type (chemical formula Fe3Al2Si3O12), though it is usually cloudy and rarely used in jewelry. Pyrope garnets are the classic blood red gems, and have been worn by men and women for thousands of years. Hessonite garnet has a tawny, reddish brown color that reminds me of whiskey. Rhodolite garnet is a pretty pinkish purple and the name was coined in the late 19th century after its discovery in my home state of North Carolina for the rhododendron flowers that grow wild in the same mountains.
Rhododendron flowers in Asheville, NC. Photo by the talented BlueRidgeKitties at http://www.flickr.com/photos/blueridgekitties/4687504392
Rough NC Mason Mine rhodolite garnet. Image by Dean Nasco at DJ gems. http://www.djgems.net/rhodoliteminepage.htm
Garnets are abundant and found worldwide, which is why they are so common in folklore. Most of the gem-grade material today comes out of Arizona, Sri Lanka, India, and regions of Africa. Garnets are not enhanced (probably because they already tend to grow under high heat and pressure), and so what you see is their natural color. There are synthetic garnets made mainly for industrial use, along with low-quality natural material ground like sand. You can find garnets in abrasives and water filtration systems, and they are used in the building of planes, cars, and ships because of their ability to sand and cut metal.
In the Far East, garnets instilled cheerfulness and were a protection against poisons and disease. In ancient Europe, garnets were believed to reduce inflammation of the skin and were wrapped in bandages or sent to protect soldiers going into battle. Garnets were also given to friends and lovers as a sign that they would meet again soon.