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Red Garnet

When in the early 1980s researchers at the Gemological Institute of America unveiled a system to classify the breeds of red garnet—pyrope, almandine and spessartite—the gem market greeted the news with cheers.

Bronx cheers.

Why, dealers wondered, make all that fuss over stones that rarely cost more than $20 per carat—regardless of type. “I can’t take R.I. [refractive index] readings on all the red garnets in my inventory,” says Dick Greenwood, A.F. Greenwood Inc., New York, “so I take a wild guess and send them out as whatever they seem to be.”

Maybe GIA’s painstaking garnet research would have been more appreciated if undertaken 140 years earlier—before low-priced dark-red garnets from Bohemia started to flood the market in the mid-19th century. That deluge cost the species the nearly six millennia of esteem it had enjoyed ever since Moses, circa 3,500 B.C., selected a red garnet, probably from India, as one of the dozen gems to be used in the high priest of Israel’s breastplate. Once red garnets became as common as, well, agates, dealers seemed to lose all respect for them.

Indeed, today the term “garnet” is frequently a dealer synonym for ugliness of color in any red gem, especially ruby. It is common to hear gem dealers convey scorn or worse for stones by describing them as “garnet-colored” or “garnet-like” That usually means the stone is either over-dark or over-purple. Just recently for instance, when Sotheby’s failed to sell a very purplish 48-carat Burma ruby it ballyhooed as “The Mandalay,” one ruby maven summed up prevailing contempt to the press as follows: “Why, the stone looks like a damned garnet.”

Given such lack of respect for red garnet, it is hardly surprising that pyrope and almandine, throughout history the birthstones for January, very often find themselves shunned in favor of others of the breed. Ironically, the prime pyrope substitute is rhodolite, a violet garnet discovered in the late 19th century that few in the trade realize is a member of the pyrope-almandine family. Isn’t it time therefore that someone put in a good word for much-maligned red garnets?

FROM REGARD TO DISTREGARD

The ancients had only good words for what is now considered the pyrope-almandine series of garnets, once as rare and as prized as ruby. Red garnet rated high praise from earliest times because it was strongly associated with the element of fire. In fact, the Greeks dubbed red garnet pyrope (meaning literally “I see fire”), then bunched it together with other minerals under the general heading of anthrax (as in anthracite) because, as John Rouse writes in his book, “Garnet,” it “appeared to be burning from within when held up to the sun, like a burning coal.”

The connection with fire remained strong with the Romans, too. It was they who coined the name “carbuncle” (meaning “fiery gem”) by which red garnet was known until very recently. But long before the Romans adopted the name “carbuncle,” sages in India—where pyrope and almandine were and still are found in abundance—identified red garnet with the sun, the chief astrological influence on people’s lives.

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Red Garnet