Birthstones are one of the most popular manifestations of a personal signifier, a marking of one’s existence in a way, and the mysterious and moody garnet makes the first impression as the birthstone of January.
The appreciation for garnets extends back to the ancients, and since the Middle Ages they have been prized for their supposed healing and protective powers. As one of the first traded gems, the Egyptians used them for rituals and they were worn by nobles and Pharaohs. They were also a fashionable favorite with the Greeks as well as the Romans who frequently carved portraits and mythological beings into them for signet rings. Garnets persisted to be significant with Frankish and Merovingian jewellery in the early Christian eras. Their bold abstract and geometric compositions emphasized the reddish stone and were often worked with cloisonné techniques.
The tradition of birthstones is said to begin with the twelve stones on Aaron’s Breastplate of Judgement representing the Twelve Tribes of the Children of Israel. The carbuncle stone is named as one of the first four in the first row of stones. Carbuncle refers to any red gemstone but most commonly meant a garnet. The word garnet derives from the Latin word granatum, meaning seedlike, for their visual similarity to pomegranate seeds. It is with this account from Exodus that stones are empowered with mystical attributes. In later English translations of the Bible, the Genesis story of Noah’s Ark describes lanterns with garnets illuminating the way through the darkness. And so, perhaps an apt choice for the dark, winter month of January and the first birthstone leading the way through the calendar year.
Chosen for their corresponding spiritual characteristics, and meant to cultivate good luck, the the birthstones of the modern era have evolved quite a bit from the original Biblical medley. The idea of wearing birthstones became a custom in Poland in the 18th century and coincides with the influx of Jewish gem traders to the region. By the early 20th century, jewellers began amending birthstones according to overstock or other business purposes creating confusion resulting in a lack of a true and identifiable symbol. Then in 1912, The National Association of Jewelers in America developed the modern selection which was soon adopted by other countries. This is the set of twelve we are familiar with in the West today. With older and newer lists, the consensus seemed to be that garnets always represent January.
The Medieval and Renaissance eras show a continued affinity for garnets, and the gemstones reached another crescendo in Europe when rich deposits were found in Bohemia in the 1500s. Their deep rich red color also made them swagger worthy for the display of prominence and wealth by clergy and nobles. However, beyond this show of vanity is the practice by which stones and metals were desired and studied for their intrinsic medicinal powers. By the Middle Ages, garnets were believed to promote good health and ward off demons and thus often chosen for amulets as well worn for protection from the Black Death. They were valued for aiding good sleep, guarding the wearer from nightmares, and protecting travelers.
Particularly fascinating are the many Medieval and Renaissance treatises on the curative potency of stones and metals that date back to the ancients and authors such as Pliny. Remedies based on published lapidaries became widespread in the Renaissance. Lorenzo de Medici was treated with an elixir containing ground gems and gold for his final illness, which apparently lists carbuncle as an ingredient. Such therapeutic concoctions were supported by philosophical notions of building up both the spirit as well as the physical body, and at times, intertwined with theories of the influence of celestial bodies on the stone’s healing capabilities. Medici’s court philosopher, Marsilio Ficino, suggested turning toward the sun when taking them.
Garnets for many also stimulate true love and are emblematic of fidelity and friendship. In Irish culture, the tradition of the iconic Claddagh ring symbolizes these ideals too. Dating back to Roman times, Fede rings (Faith rings) were comprised of two clasping hands representing a joining together. The Claddagh ring depicts two hands holding a heart with a crown atop. This trinity represents friendship, love and loyalty. The design traces its roots to Galway and the legend of fisherman Robert Joyce who was captured by Algerian Corsairs before marrying his great love. He was sold into slavery to a Moorish goldsmith where he learned the trade. Once freed, Joyce returned to Galway, and his love, and created the ring marking their lasting love and fidelity. A gemstone is frequently incorporated within the motif to accentuate the heart and a birthstone is a typical choice. The deep rich color of the garnet and its storied past make it a suitable pairing for the time-honored and culturally laden ring.
Not so exalted for their rarity, garnets can be found the world over and come in a variety of chemical compositions. Recognized primarily in their dark, rich red hue, garnets, in fact, span the spectrum with green, orange, yellow and pink as part of the selection. Still, the most common varieties are the familiar. Pyrope, often found in ancient Roman jewellery, with its quintessential deep red color, has the presence of chrome. Rhodolite garnets have a brightness with a purplish tinge. Almandine is also well-known, especially to the preference of the Victorians who often clustered the seed-like stones for their more ornate jewels. Its characteristic dark orange-brown to black color derives from the iron and magnesium present. Spessartine garnets have enjoyed wide popularity too and possess a dark red to orange range with magnesium, iron and aluminum in the mix. More scarce are demantoids, known for its lustrous sparkle like a diamond. More rare too are change color garnets which relies on incandescent or natural light for the switch to the alternate hue.
Jewellery so often represents what is very personal for us: love, family, nostalgic beauty, cultural pride and faith. Whether a subtle embellishment or a grand gesture, they reflect pieces of ourselves, past or present. Birthstones are simply a festive modern means to reflect our coming into the world. For those who share garnets and January as their birth month, it is truly a rich representation.
Visit ShamrockGift.com’s selection of Celtic birthstone jewelry to discover a wide range of choices for pendants and rings.