Garnet symbolism is rich and varied. Cultures all over the world have prized this gemstone for its beautiful colours and durability. The traditional January birthstone has also inspired many legends and popular associations with love, friendship, light, and vitality.
An Ancient Gemstone
People have used garnets for jewelry and decorative objects for millennia. It’s one of the oldest known gemstones. Archeologists have recovered garnet necklaces and talismans from Ancient Egyptian tombs and mummies.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans also highly valued this gem. They used garnet signet rings to seal important documents as well as for a variety of jewelry pieces and other items.
In fact, the word “garnet” comes from the Latin word granatus for seed or grain, most likely a reference to the seeds of the pomegranate fruit. Indeed, some garnets do resemble pomegranate seeds in colour, size, and shape.
What is a Carbuncle?
Although garnets can occur in almost any colour, they’re popularly associated with the colour red. Historically, red gemstones that modern gemologists separate into different species and groups — like rubies, spinels, and garnets — were often considered to be the same type of stone. For example, many ancient sources, even some sources from the 19th century, described gems are known as “carbuncles.” This term typically referred to blood-red cabochon-cut gems of any type. Nowadays, this term is rarely used except when referring to antique or ancient gems.
Many so-called carbuncles have proven to be red garnets, especially almandines, the most common variety of garnet. However, some of these stones are not garnets. Nevertheless, much of the folklore surrounding carbuncles has now become part of the folklore of garnets.
In modern gemology, garnet is actually a mineral group that encompasses many related species of gems. Garnets most often occur in combinations of these species and rarely ever occur as a pure single species. So, keep in mind that much garnet symbolism predates the modern definition of garnet.
A Light to Dim All Earthly Things
Some carbuncles were said to shine as if they had an internal light. In fact, the word comes from the Latin carbunculus for small, hot coal.
According to Jewish tradition, Noah brought a gem into the Ark as a source of light. During the Flood, the Sun and Moon didn’t shine, but this precious stone shone “more brilliant by night than by day, so enabling Noah to distinguish between day and night.” Some accounts refer to this gem as a carbuncle or, by association, a garnet.
The motif of a garnet that can emit light appears in the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, The Great Carbuncle (1837). In this moral tale, 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 of midnight.” After a wise, simple couple finds but reject the stone “which would have dimmed all earthly things,” its brilliance faded.
Garnets for Protection
The belief that garnets have the power to shield their wearers from harm is very widespread. Saxon and Celtic kings favoured garnet inlaid jewelry because of this supposed protection. Native American healers similarly believed that garnets had protective powers against injury and poison. According to Judeo-Christian tradition, King Solomon wore garnets into battle. During the Crusades, Christian and Muslim warriors both wore garnets.
During the Middle Ages, some believed carved gemstones occurred that way miraculously in nature. Although gem carving was well-known in previous centuries, knowledge of this practice had declined in Europe at this time. Specific carvings on specific gems presumably had special magical powers. For example, according to Ragiel’s 13th century CE work, The Book of Wings:
The well-formed image of a lion, if engraved on a garnet, will protect and preserve honors and health, cures the wearer of all diseases, brings him honors, and guards him from all perils in traveling.
Perhaps due to the stone’s reputation for protection, royalty often wore garnets. For example, Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria, and the Russian Czarinas was all well-known for wearing garnets as adornments on their garments.
Garnets, Blood, and Life Force
Since ancient times, garnet’s traditional red colour was associated with the heart and blood. Thus, people believed garnet’s mystical purview included the power to counter melancholy, stir the heart to great deeds, prevent hemorrhage, and improve circulation.
The Hunza warriors from Kashmir shot garnet pellets with bows and later guns, believing that the stones would inflict particularly bloody wounds.
Garnet’s colour and inner fire could also presumably stir a person’s creative energy. Garnets have been symbolically associated with life force, especially the feminine life force.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, the clergy valued garnets as symbols of Christ’s blood and sacrifice. (Amethyst was another stone associated with the suffering of Christ because its colour was believed to resemble wounds).
Love and Friendship
With associations with the heart, blood, inner fire, and life force, garnets have long been considered symbols of love. Garnet's symbolism also extends to friendship. However, these connections are surprisingly sinister.
In Greek mythology, Persephone, the goddess of vegetation, was kidnapped by Hades, the god of the Underworld. She could only return to the surface world if she didn’t eat any food in that realm. Since she ate some pomegranate seeds, she had to remain in the Underworld for that many months out of the year, which results in the months of winter.
Because of garnet’s association with pomegranate seeds, the stone has come to stand for the safe return of a friend or loved one. Garnets were said to protect travellers on their journeys and were often exchanged between friends as tokens that they would meet again. (Though in the myth, the pomegranate seeds bind Persephone to return to Hades).
Bohemian Garnets and Jewelry Styles
Garnets had their heyday in Europe when the Bohemian garnet deposits were discovered in 1500. Their enormous production made the gemstone more popular than ever, and Bohemia (in the modern Czech Republic) became a great garnet jewelry center. Traditionally, Bohemian artisans set garnets in rounded clusters, creating lustrous seas of red that resemble pomegranate seeds.
Garnets maintained their popularity through Victorian times but fell out of fashion after the 1800s.
A Renewed Passion for Garnet Jewelry
However, interest in garnets has risen again. Today, designers continue to find new and creative ways to incorporate these gems in jewelry.
Consumers aren’t just looking for classic red stones. Discovered in the 19th century, rare demantoid garnets, with their emerald-like green colour, now number among the most valuable and sought-after gemstones. Even more recently, orange mandarin garnets, discovered in the 1990s, have become highly prized. Other garnet varieties in many colours — such as brown, purple, and pink — have also garnered interest as jewelry stones.
With iridescent, star, and colour change varieties, the garnet group will fascinate jewelry enthusiasts and gem collectors alike.