The Garnet in Antique Jewelry
Garnet: the birthstone of January, the pomegranate jewel, has been a gem worn and gifted as a symbol of love and protection since as long ago as 3000 B.C. Garnet beads and gems have been found in jewelry from bronze age graves to the tombs of pharaohs in Ancient Egypt, as well as in Ancient Rome and Greece. Treasured by Anglo Saxons and Georgian and Victorian era jewelry lovers alike, the garnet's popularity across the world and time has never dulled.
A necklet with a pendant in two stages, garnets set in silver floral openwork, made in England, c.1760-80
What is a Garnet?
Garnets are silicate minerals that form under extremely high temperatures and pressure. Geologists can actually use them to estimate the temperatures and pressures at which the rock around them was formed. Garnets, however, are not just one type of gemstone. 'Garnet' is actually the name for a group of gems with very similar chemical structures. This group contains six main varieties: Almandine, Pyrope, Spessartine, Grossular, Uvarovite, and Andradite. So, when a piece of antique jewelry says it contains a garnet, it is likely to be one or another of these varieties – almandine being the most common.
Gold ring with a pyramidal bezel set with an almandine garnet with talons below, c.1550-1600
18th-century love-ring set in gold with a slender hoop with ribbed shoulders pierced to enclose trefoils; bezel composed of two hearts set with moss agates; bordered and crowned by garnets
Three aigrettes. Left: in the form of flowers and a feather tied with a bow, with a trembler butterfly. Middle: in the form of a flower spray with a trembler bird. Right: in the form of a spray of flowers, tied with a bow, with a trembler bird. All set with flat-cut garnets, and all c.1726-1775
© The Trustees of the British Museum
A gold pendant in the form of a padlock set with foiled almandine garnets and enclosing hair, c.1800
A Georgian almandine garnet parure comprising of a necklace, earrings, maltese cross, and brooch, c.1800. Maltese cross garnet drop pendants were made popular by Lady (Emma) Hamilton, Lord Nelson's mistress, who collected food and money for the Maltese when they were being invaded by France at the end of the eighteenth century. It started out as a wearable medal for good deeds/work but soon became a very popular pendant for English women everywhere
Gold hair ornament set with briolette-cut garnet drops and pearls, c.1830
Detailed and substantial Georgian garnet snake locket clasp with an elegant locking mechanism
Stamped gold pair of earrings, set with carbuncles (almandine garnets), England, c.1835. Although they look expensive, the swirling gold mounts in this set of jewelry are stamped out of thin gold sheets using far less metal than would appear to be the case. Long earrings came into fashion at the end of the 1820s
Almandine garnet in a gold mount, c.1850
Gold heart-shaped locket with engraved foliate decoration, the loop in the form of a snake, set with an oval cabochon garnet or 'carbuncle'. There is a compartment under the glass on the reverse containing a gold initial 'W' and white hair. Accompanied by a label written in ink in a nineteenth-century hand which reads: 'Hair of the great Duke of Wellington. Cut off by C. V. Shelly (Mrs. Kent), c.1852
A ring set with a garnet with a border of brilliant-cut diamonds in a gold mount, c.1860
Ring set with an almandine garnet with an intaglio of a Bacchante in a gold mount, the mount probably made in England, c.1800-1869 - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Gold floral spray brooch set with garnets, Spain, c.1800-1860
Gold girandole earring set with garnets and white pastes, Genoa (Italy), c.1800-1867
Victorian 15 carat gold locket clasp with garnet cab and tassels. Engraved 'registered 1886'
An antique snake jewel with a garnet set in its head
A selection of antique snake jewelry set with garnets
Antique Animal Jewelry
Antique ouroboros snake bracelet with a garnet set in its head
The name 'Garnet' is believed to come from the Latin word 'Garanatus', meaning 'seedlike'. This refers particularly to pomegranate seeds, which shine with a rich red hue much like a garnet. Garnets, however, are not always red. Most garnets found in antique jewelry do have the signature ruby-red fiery glow, but garnets actually come in a whole range of different colors.
Almandine is usually red with an almost purplish-pink tint; pyropes can be dark red to reddish-orange; spessartines can be a range of colors from yellow-orange to intense orange, to red-brown; grossulars include hessonite (brown-orange), tsavorite (an intense green), leuco garnets (colorless), and mali (yellow-green to yellow-brown); while uvarovites are precious emerald green gems from the Urals, and andradites are a group of gems including melanite (opaque black), topazolite (lemon-yellow), and the highly sought-after and rare demantoid (bright green). While these other colors do exist, they are much rarer - a green garnet of over five carats, for example, is rarer than an emerald of the same size.
Left: A full Georgian eternity ring of flat-cut hessonite garnets. For comparison, the rare flat-cut garnet hoop poissarde earrings on the right are more purple-red in color, so are very likely almandine garnets
Pyrope garnet ring stone with an intaglio of a winged foot resting on a butterfly, c.1st-3rd century CE. Gift of John Taylor Johnston, 1881.
An early 19th-century rose-gold eye miniature set with 'natural' garnets (probably pyrope since they are red rather than the purplish-red that almandines are). Set over reflective foils, possibly tinted, with an inner area set with seed pearls, probably freshwater pearls
A hessonite garnet, oblong with rounded corners, set in a gold coronet mount, c.1800-1869
Earrings with rose-cut diamonds set in silver and hessonite garnets set in gold, c.1680- 1700
Early 17th-century hessonite garnet depicting a draped female bust in three-quarter profile. She has long, wavy hair cascading down her shoulders. The piece has an open gold mount and is enameled on both the obverse and reverse with alternating leaf and pearl-like shapes in white enamel with black dots
Late 18th/early 19th-century Neoclassical hessonite cameo ring of Emperor Tiberius
A Victorian demantoid garnet and diamond double heart ring, each heart set with a demantoid garnet to the center of an old brilliant-cut diamond surround, with diamond-set ribbon bow surmount, the demantoid garnets estimated a total of 3.3 carats, the diamonds estimated a total of 1.1 carats, all set in silver to a yellow gold mount ring, c.1880
Myths, Legends, and Powers
For a long time, garnets were often confused with other red gems like rubies and spinels. All of these precious gems were lumped in together with any other red cabochon-cut gems as being the same material, called ‘carbuncles’. The name comes from the Latin word ‘carbunculus’, meaning ‘small, hot coal’ as if the gems had their own internal light glowing forth from within. The name carbuncle is no longer used when referring to the red gems in antique jewelry, but many carbuncles have since been identified as garnets, leading garnets to now be closely associated with the word and with several tales and myths of mysteriously ‘glowing’ red carbuncles.
In the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, The Great Carbuncle (1837), a group of adventurers seek a legendary gem in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that shines with a red light so brilliant it could ‘make a noonday out of midnight’. In the story of Noah’s ark, a ‘precious stone’ believed to be a garnet guides Noah through the year of the flood when the sun and moon aren’t shining. The stone shone ‘more brilliant by night than by day, so enabling Noah to distinguish between day and night’. To add to this legend of the glowing garnet that guides its owners through the dark, the ancient Greeks called garnets ‘nuktalopos’, meaning ‘lamp stone’, and believed that wearing a garnet around the neck could give you the ability to see in the dark.
“The Great Carbuncle,” oil on canvas by William Sidney Goodwin (1833-1916)
Southampton City Art Gallery via Wikimedia Commons
Because of its commonly red coloring as well as its Latin name, garnet is strongly associated with the symbol of the pomegranate. In the tale of Hades and Persephone in Greek mythology, Hades gives Persephone a pomegranate before she leaves him, to ensure her speedy return, binding them to each other across whatever distance. Because of this, garnets have historically been given to loved ones when embarking on a journey as a kind of talisman for a safe return. Garnets were also said generally to protect travelers on their voyages.
In a similar way, there are other tales of garnets engraved with the figure of a lion being an effective charm that will protect and preserve health, cure the wearer of all disease, bring him honors, and guard him against all the possible perils in traveling. It was also said to warn the wearer of approaching danger. One writer wrote that if a garnet loses its luster and shine, it is a sure sign of coming disaster.
Gold finger ring with a circular open-work hoop depicting foliate designs, peacocks, and a cross patée; attached to the hoop is a massive projecting bezel containing a garnet engraved in intaglio with a lion and a bull's head. These are characteristically Byzantine motifs, and the intaglio is c.1stC-3rdC, but the ring may have been worn in later times with the belief that that lion on the garnet was a protective symbol
Protective & Healing Powers
During medieval times, garnets were thought to offer protection against the plague, poisons, and bad dreams. They were also said to stimulate and lift the heart, helping to cure depression or melancholy and prevent evil thoughts. They were also thought, due to their commonly blood-red coloring, to heal blood diseases, hemorrhages, indigestion, sore throats, and diseases of the liver – almandine and pyrope garnets being the gems of choice for healing properties.
A gold amulet pendant, enameled and set with a hessonite garnet, a peridot, and hung with a sapphire, c.1540-60. The settings of the stones are open at the back for direct contact with the wearer's skin. According to medieval and Renaissance beliefs, the magical properties of the stones better benefitted the wearer this way. Renaissance pendants were often made as protective amulets. Here, the power of the amulet is heightened by an inscription to ward off epilepsy and an invocation to God, Jesus, and Mary
The belief that garnets could shield wearers from harm and heal their diseases or wounds was very widespread, and Saxon and Celtic kings favored garnet-inlaid jewelry for these supposed properties. According to tradition, King Solomon wore garnets into battle, and garnet was thought to be one of the four precious stones given to King Solomon by God.
Anglo-Saxon sword hilt fitting, gold with garnet cloisonné inlay, c. 8th century CE
Photo by portableantiques via flikr
The relationship between garnets and the color of blood has also led religious groups to associate garnets with the blood of Christ, and many crosses are often set with garnets for this reason.
Pendant cross, made of pierced gold set with faceted garnets in high conical mounts, hanging from a matching plaque. The mounts are riveted to the base. Red was the most popular color in traditional jewelry throughout Italy. In the south the jewelers usually used coral, but in the northern and central regions, they decorated their crosses with garnets, as here. Parma, Italy, c.1800-1867
Pendant cross, garnets set in gold, made in England, c.1800
Because of the associations of garnet with blood, it was also associated with ancient ideas of the life-giving powers of uterine blood. The pomegranate was also sometimes used as a symbol of the womb. For these reasons, there were some periods of history in certain places where it was thought that only women should wear garnets, due to their connections with feminine life-giving power.
The Popularity of Garnets
As mentioned in the introduction, garnets have been used in jewelry since at least the bronze age, with garnet beads from ancient burial sites dating back to 3000 B.C. Archeologists have recovered many garnet necklaces and talismans from Ancient Egyptian tombs, and many impressive garnet signet rings have been traced back to Ancient Greece and Rome, used by important men to seal their documents and convey their wealth and status. Being such a hard and durable stone (surviving as some of the pieces have for around 5000 years), garnets were often favored for creating engraved pieces like seals, intaglios, and cameos depicting classical figures or deities. It is said that Plato had his portrait engraved on a garnet by a Roman engraver.
Pectoral and necklace composed around the throne name of King Senwosret II. It was found among the jewelry of Princess Sithathoryunet in a special niche of her underground tomb. The pectoral is inlaid with 372 carefully cut pieces of carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and garnet set in gold, c.1887–1878 B.C.
The bodies of two snakes form the shank of an Egyptian gold ring with a cabochon-cut red garnet in the center. Roman period (30 BCE-323 CE) - Photo: liveauctioneers.com and TimeLine Auctions Ltd
A garnet intaglio of Queen Berenike II of Ptolemaic Egypt in a gold ring setting. To ensure the safe return of her husband from battle, Queen Berenike II dedicated her hair to the gods. The constellation Berenice’s Hair, near Leo, commemorates this event. (Earlier in her life, she reputedly rode into a battle after the death of her father and defeated the enemy), c.246-222 BCE
A classical Greek intaglio engraved in garnet (4thC BC) in a Roman ring (2ndC) with an angular hoop and oblong bezel with rounded corners, depicting Herakles, beardless, attacking the hydra with his club
Victorian garnet eternity ring worn below a fede ring c.1750 - this ring has a pair of clasped hands carved into the central almandine garnet stone, with table-cut diamonds in silver set into the elaborate shoulders Antique Animal Jewelry
Garnets were also extremely popular amongst the Anglo Saxons as protective pieces to wear into battle but also generally as small, simple, domed or faceted pieces used to embellish brooches, pendants, and buckles.
Gold Anglo-Saxon buckle plate with inlaid cloisonné garnets, filigree work, and silver back-plate
Early Anglo Saxon gold tear-shaped pendant set with garnets and blue glass and with a filigree rim
Garnets have a lot of royal and noble prestige too – from the Pharos of Ancient Egypt to the nobility of the Middle Ages, Mary Queen of Scots, the Russian Czarinas, The King of Saxony (who is said to have had a garnet of over 465 carats), and Queen Victoria – many royals favored garnets in their jewelry and accessories.
Gold ring with a forked shank and an ouroboros open bezel, set with a garnet intaglio of a bust of George III (1738-1820) when a young man. The intaglio is dated c. 1760 but the ring is from the twentieth century
A gold ring set with twelve red stones thought to be garnets and a single glass panel containing the woven hair of George III. This ring belonged to Princess Sophia and later to Queen Victoria
A plain gold ring with a faceted garnet inserted into the bezel and backed with foil. The onyx cameo inlaid into the garnet features a very small, very finely cut cameo of King George IV (1762-1830). Throughout the Regency and the 1820s the Royal goldsmiths, Bridge & Rundell, regularly supplied George IV with cameo and intaglio rings carrying his likeness. Many such rings were gifted to the King’s favorites
Gold brooch bordered with garnets in a closed back setting and set with a resin 'cameo' of a full-length portrait of William Shakespeare holding a scroll and leaning on a column The 'cameo' is cast resin in white with a pink ground, under glass and inscribed on the reverse, c.1815
Carl Fabergé (1846–1920), Jeweller to the Czars, Saint Petersburg, Scarab brooch, c.1900. Garnet, gold, diamonds, rubies, enamel, silver
This brooch, c.1849-50, is based on an ancient prototype and shows a revival of interest in Celtic history at the time. It is a variant of the Ogham Brooch, a ninth-century piece from Ballyspellan, which is engraved with Celtic knotwork. The cabochon-cut garnets (or carbuncles) are a nineteenth-century enrichment, the original having silver beads. It was purchased by Prince Albert and presented to Queen Victoria at Christmas 1849, having been acquired during the royal visit to Dublin in August 1849
Garnets had a particular explosion in popularity in Europe around 1500, when the Bohemian garnet deposits were discovered (in modern-day Czechia). This sudden widespread availability meant that garnets started to be used widely in jewelry, from rings and earrings to opulent pendants and parures set with flat-cut almandines of cushion, pear, and circular shapes. Bohemia became a center for garnet jewelry, with Bohemian artisans popularly setting garnets in clusters so that they resembled the pomegranate seeds they were named for.
Antique Bohemian garnet earrings, c. 1900
Bohemian garnet earrings
Pair of gilt-metal, upside-down heart-shaped earrings set with garnets and pearls. These earrings are typical of the kind fashionable in Britain from the mid-19th century onwards. They are set with facetted garnets from Bohemia, bought in southern Germany, c.1850-1870
A 'Bohemian' garnet cross, c.1890
Garnets continued to be highly popular in Europe well into the 18th and 19th centuries, as they were affordable and attractive gems. Chokers were popular in the mid-1700s, while necklets were popular from the 1780s. In Perpignan in France, local garnets were faceted like rose-cut diamonds and set as simple rivières or spikey fringed necklaces.
Beautiful Georgian flat-cut garnet choker c.1750 that fastens by way of a silk velvet or a silk satin ribbon. The garnets are set into gilt metal closed back clusters
A Georgian flat-cut garnet suite. The suite comprises a rivière necklace and pair of earrings, each featuring naturalistic flower and foliate motifs, c.1780
An 18-carat gold necklace set with 37 round, rose-cut rhodolite garnets on red-gold foil, graduated in size. Suspended from each garnet is a smaller one and below that a small gold ball. The lock has an oval garnet. South of France, end 19th century
Garnets briefly fell out of favor after 1820, but experienced a revival around the 1870s when ‘Holbeinesque’ jewelry (Renaissance-inspired pendants and earrings) saw pyrope garnets set in colorful, champlevé-enameled frames alongside other gems like diamond or chrysolite. This was the so-called ‘Grand Period’ of jewelry and the rich and bold color of the garnet provided the perfect statement gem for distinctive bracelets, brooches, and necklaces. However, Victorian pieces are identifiable for being lighter and usually set in lower carat gold, with the work not being quite as fine as that of the Georgian era.
Victorian double snake marriage brooch/pendant comprising two cabochon garnets set with diamond initials EW and SS. The garnets are encircled by two gold snakes set with 8 old cut diamonds and joined by a natural pearl and two more diamonds. The back of the garnets are set with hair lockets and one of them is engraved ‘4 Sept 1844’
A Neo-Renaissance gold 'Holbeinesque' pendant mounted with a pyrope garnet cabochon in a champlevé enameled frame set with chrysolites, c.1870
Victorian 18K gold earrings with carbuncles (oval cabochon garnets) and seed pearls, c. 1870.
Victorian heart padlocks set with garnets, all with a hair locket on the reverse
Antique Animal Jewelry
In 1853, Demantoid – the bright green andradite garnet – was discovered in the Russian Urals. By the 1880s, it was being set in jewelry across Europe, including in the works of Peter Carl Fabergé and other jewelers in London who obtained supplies from gem merchants such as E W Streeter. The green hues of the demantoid were a perfect fit for making jewelry of reptilian and insect designs, creating a surge in the popularity of brooches in the shapes of animals like frogs, lizards, and dragonflies.
Demantoid Garnet Snake Brooch, c.1890
A Demantoid garnet and diamond dragonfly brooch, c.1880
A Victorian demantoid garnet and diamond lizard brooch, the writhing lizard encrusted with old brilliant-cut diamonds, estimated to weigh a total of 2.65 carats, silver claw-set to a yellow gold mount, set with a central streak of round-shaped faceted garnets, estimated to weigh a total of 1.50 carats, with garnet eyes, claw-set to a yellow gold mount, all to a detachable yellow gold brooch fitting, c.1880
Today, garnets are still a very popular gem to use in jewelry. Although we may have lost a lot of the meanings attached to sentimental, symbolic, or protective pieces of the past, it is still widely favored for its magnificent variety of reddish hues, which come at a cheaper price (usually) than rubies.
To wrap up, here is a selection of some of Antique Animal Jewelry's garnet jewelry: