Stones, glass and coloured gemstones in particular have always been a source of fascination to me. When I was little, my mother often found herself in a real-life horror story due to my quest to collect. Apparently I once wandered off the path and got lost on the way to have afternoon tea with a Great Aunt. I was eventually found scooping armfuls of wet mud out of the bank and onto my best cream woollen coat – I was filtering it to find interesting stones! My walks are much better these days – I never wear a cream woollen coat!
If you have a birthday in January, how about putting a carbuncle on your gift wish-list? It sounds almost as ridiculous as asking for a cold sore, but in medieval times it would be amongst the most sought-after possessions. Back then, as well as referring to an unsightly boil, ’Carbuncle’ (originating from the Latin for ‘glowing coal’) was the name given to large red garnets.
Garnet is the birthstone for January, and one of my personal gemstone favourites.
Garnets provide jewellers with a kaleidoscope of colours, surfaces and light-effects to use in infinite creative ways. Variations of trace elements such as iron, manganese, chromium and vanadium produce the huge colour range available. Most of the world’s mined garnet is best suited for use as an industrial abrasive. A small quantity, however, is of fine enough quality to be commercially important as gems. Rare examples are worth more than an equivalent diamond.
When it comes to gemological study, these stones are complicated – but you don’t have to understand the chemical composition and crystal structure to enjoy their stunning beauty. Colours, include red, brown, orange, yellow, a range of greens, pink and purple. The modern jewellery trade has given them more flattering common names than our medieval counterparts (it wasn’t difficult to do better than carbuncle); Mandarin, mint, raspberry, hot orange and cinnamon-stone to mention a few.
Very occasionally a rare colour-change garnet is found. I dare anyone who ever has the good fortune to hold one, not to dash backwards and forwards between natural and artificial light to watch this amazing natural phenomenon.
Red garnets have a long and meaningful history. Almandine and Pyrope (from the Greek pyrōpos, which means “fiery-eyed” ) are the red garnets most commonly seen in antique jewellery. Ancient Egyptian burials feature garnet necklaces, and the stone was also held in high regard by the Saxons, Romans, medieval royalty and clergy. The rich red garnets favoured in Victorian times were from the newly discovered Bolivian mines and were often cut ‘en cabochon’ or domed. Some larger, darker stones had a hollowed back to increase the light traveling through them .This smooth and highly polished cut makes the garnets glow like rich drops of blood.
Vibrant green Demantoid garnets from particular mining areas contain natural inclusions known as ‘Horse Tails’. These are very exiting to gemologists, who consider inclusions part of nature’s unique signature, indicators of origin, possible treatments and just very beautiful.
A bright green Tsavorite garnet will often be more suitable for use in a ring than an emerald, and I think they are more attractive. Emerald can be very brittle, but garnet is tougher and withstands being worn daily in a ring. The ‘Peacock’ ring that I made features a Tsavorite as the focal point, with a crescent of tiny diamonds and a matched set of graduated fine sapphires. I was inspired by a trip to Brownsea island in Dorset, where not only was I surrounded by cheeky red squirrels, but was joined for lunch by some very confident peacocks. It was lovely to see their shimmering colours at close range.
Garnets have exceptionally high dispersion. This means, when cut correctly, they split white light into a rainbow and give a better fire and brilliance than diamond.
To maximise this fire and sparkle the paler stones are given a facetted cut. The facets at the back of the stone are angled to a mathematical formula that makes them split and bounce the light back through the top surface.
I got the idea for my garnet ‘Reflection Collection’ from daydreaming at the dinner table. I was gazing at the reflections inside a spoon. Lowering a pea into the bowl of the spoon caused the whole bowl to fill with its reflection, but only at a critical height and position. Would it work with a golden bowl and a dazzling orange gemstone? I chose to work with Spessartine or ‘mandarin’ garnets. From the moment I saw them I fell in love with their rich golden colour and intense fire. I was interested in exploring their effect upon light and light’s effect upon them, I set about creating a reflective background for them,
I used 22ct gold which gave a rich yellow colour similar to the stones, and formed it into a concave shape by cutting out a rough circle and pushing it into a doming block with a series of round punches. The secret is to do this without bruising the metal, as polishing out dinks and marks is very difficult once it’s concave. I then found that, just like the pea, at a particular level above the background, the whole bowl filled with golden light from the garnet. I created a minimal setting that held the stone just at the edges and made a cantilever-style arm that suspended it over the middle of the bowl at the right height.
Before the invention of synthetic gemstones in the early 1900s’- garnets were used to create cheap ‘fake’ gemstones that looked like good quality rubies, sapphires and emeralds. The ‘Garnet Topped Doublet’ was a highly successful composite gem, made from a garnet top fused onto a coloured glass back! The stone was then facetted and set into precious jewellery. The hardness, natural inclusions and sparkle of the garnet surface combined with the rich colour of the glass beneath made a convincing replica of a more valuable gem.
It seems that we are never far from some kind of connection to garnets. Whether sanding wood with abrasive paper, worrying about a boil, watching a horse swish flies with its tail or dreaming of the most delectable choice of glittering colours for a January birthday treat – whatever’s going on there’s probably a garnet involved!