If you're anything like me, the start of a new year can help kick start some of those things you might have been mulling over for a while but not quite got round to actually starting yet... And so I thought January would be a timely start to a series of blog posts about birthstones.
They are said to trace back to the bible, and whether you are religious or not, it's safe to say this idea has stuck around pretty well since then. While different religions and belief systems don't always agree on the same set of stones, there are many that are widely agreed on in the (Western) jewellery world.
The most widely recognised birthstone for January is Garnet, which is so much more complex than I first realised. Known typically for its rich deep red colour, it was named after granatum (pomegranate), due to its resemblance to the seeds of the fruit. It has since been discovered it can in fact be found in every colour, including black and clear.
The term Garnet is not for one specific stone, but instead it refers to a family of minerals that share the same crystal structure and similar properties. They display a huge range of features, most noticeably their colour. They are divided into six different 'species':
Garnets are usually found as blends of these different species, rather than pure examples.
One of my personal favourites has to be Rhodolite Garnet, a mix of Pyrope and Almandine. It exhibits incredibly rich pinky reds, and it's name is taken from Rhodon, the Greek word for rose. The first discovery of Rhodolite Garnet was in Macon County, North Carolina in the late 1890's. Stones found there are usually under 1-2 carats, but new finds in Africa have weighed over a whopping 75 carats!
Another garnet prized for its colour is the Mandarin Garnet, aptly named due to its distinctive orange colouring. Made up of mostly Spessartite, with a little Pyrope & even smaller proportion of Grossular Garnet, it is a rare and highly desired blend that was first discovered in Namibia in the 1930's and gets its colour from the Manganese content in the stone. It is a very rare mix, and facetable stones are even rarer still.
Uvarovite, Grossular & Andradite species of garnets can all flaunt similarly vibrant colouring, this time in green; the latter being the most rare and displaying more light dispersion than any other garnet and more 'fire' than even the finest Diamond. Green demantoid is especially prized for it's stunning refraction of the light, and was named after the German 'demant' for Diamond.
Discovered in Russia in the early 19th century, it had been thought only to be found there until as recently as the 1990's when new sources were found, yet it remains to be a incredibly rare gem.
An unusual variation that is similarly known for it's colour - or more specifically its ability to change colour - is the (rather unimaginatively named) 'colour change Garnet'. A blend of Pyrope & Spessartite, it has been recently discovered (late 1990's) and is very rare indeed - depending on whether it is viewed in natural or incandescent light, the colour can appear quite different. Most colour change garnets change from a brown/yellow colour in daylight to a pinky purple colour in incandescent light, but in some very rare stones, artificial light can even make them appear blue, which was previously thought never to exist with garnets: an exciting discovery in the gemstone world.
Whichever garnets are your favourites, for their colour or rarity, these are all beautiful stones that some, if cut well, can surpass even the finest Rubies, Emeralds and Diamonds. Perhaps a little underappreciated in mainstream jewellery fashion, Garnets are a fascinating stone that have an incredible depth of colour and sparkle. A regular resident in my bead box that I will no doubt be working into more of my jewellery designs over the coming months.
Having spent some time researching and writing about Garnets so soon after embarking on my recent Silversmithing journey, it has reminded me of something sat quietly in a safe place at home. It is a Garnet that has been passed down to me which was my Dad's.
In the 1980s when I was 3, we lived in Western Australia for a year. My parents were given some gemstones by a dear friend they met there, that had been mined in Australia, including some huge chunks of Jasper and opal that I always loved to look at as a child. They seemed almost as big as my head, weighed a ton, and were incredibly tactile. The Jasper was a solid hunk of stone, with raw and rugged edges, with just one highly polished face, which showed off the natural patterns and rich burnt oranges and browns and reds. The opal was a large chunk of raw rock, with a large swathe of opal running over and through it. I remember being mesmerised by the colours and the way the light bounced over it; quite unlike anything I'd ever seen. And there is this little Garnet. In many ways much more understated than the big, statement rocks that sat proud on the mantelpiece. A small stone, faceted in a 'baguette' style, it shows off the deep, blood red colouring.
I still have the piece of paper that was given to my parents with it 30 years ago. Written in pencil is the location of the mine where it was unearthed: Harts Range, Mt Riddock Station, 120 miles NE of Alice Springs (Northern Territories).
I discovered this brilliant article about the range of mines, reputed for their high quality and wide ranging gemstones found in the area:
I'd recommend taking a few minutes to read about the mine. It's a fascinating article, packed with information; from the geological terminologies, mining history and lengthy list of gemstones found there, to photographs and anecdotal recollections of the terrain - "Its generally very rugged going, mines are small and difficult to find, with many areas not accessible at all by vehicle. Walking anywhere is possible of course, but hampered by lack of defined tracks and water."
It's fascinating and exciting to know where this beautiful (and incredibly sentimental) gem was formed and later discovered, over 30 years ago and more than 9,500 miles away.
As I hone my silversmithing skills over the coming years, I hope that one day I will re-set it myself into something that can be worn every day and kept in the family.
For me, that will be the most special Garnet of all.