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Garnets: The Beauty and Utility of a Gem

Victorian ring with pyrope garnet cabochon, c. 1890. Photo by author.

Because many of my ancestors were jewelers, I have always had a special interest in gemology and jewelry.  This month, since garnet is the official birthstone of January, I felt that it was apropos to dedicate some time to this semiprecious stone and mineral.

It seems that the American National Association of Jewelers (Jewelers of America) designated garnet as the official birthstone for January in 1912. In case you are curious  about the origins of birthstone lore, according to the International Colored Gem Association (ICA) “the custom of wearing birthstones probably first became popular in Poland in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.”  The ICA recommends George Frederick Kunz‘s book The curious lore of precious stones; being a description of their sentiments and folklore, superstitions, symbolism, mysticism, use in medicine, protection, prevention, religion, and divination, crystal gazing, birthstones, lucky stones and talismans, astral, zodiacal, and planetary. (Interesting cultural note:  According to the American Gem Society, another association of jewelers and affiliated tradespeople, the “origin of birthstones is believed to date back to the breastplate of Aaron which contained twelve gemstones representing the twelve tribes of Israel.”)

In the United States, if you have ever wondered who regulates the jewelry you purchase at a retail store, it is the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that sets out the legal descriptors used to define these pieces of ornamentation and their components.  For their lawful distribution, advertisements about diamonds, gemstones and pearls must be accurate.  This brochure highlights some of the “How-Tos” for describing them.  On the FTC’s site, you will also find much of the information needed to operate in the commerce and industry of jewelry. The FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) “enforces laws that protect consumers against unfair or deceptive practices.”  The BCP’s Business Center provides “business tools to understand and comply with the law.”  The Business Center also has a Legal Resources section where “you’ll find more in-depth, legal information – like case highlights, reports, workshops, rules and laws the FTC enforces, and compliance documents like staff opinion letters, Commission advisory opinions, policy statements, and industry guides.”

For the more adventurous individuals, if you are interested in prospecting for garnets you may want to look at this blog, where a prospector goes into the details of his experience in Wyoming.  He also includes some bibliographic sources.  Another source of information for prospectors is the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS); its thesaurus makes navigating the site a lot easier.  On the subject of garnet prospecting, the Library of Congress also has a book titled Garnets in Montana Diatremes: A Key to Prospecting for Kimberlites.

Garnets are mined throughout the African continent, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ukraine, Uruguay, and the U.S. (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Virginia).  Of the latter, four states have designated garnet as their official gem/mineral: Connecticut (by the 1977 General Assembly); Idaho (as of legislation of 1967, the star garnet is the official gemstone); New York; and Vermont (the grossular garnet is the official state mineral/gem).

For legislation concerning prospecting/mining for garnets in the international arena, you would look for the jurisdiction’s law on mining.  For example, article four of Mexico’s Mining Law defines the garnet as a mineral for industrial use.

Speaking of “industrial use,” it should be noted that garnets are not only used for making jewelry.  Lesser grade “industrial garnets” are used as abrasives (like sandpaper).  According to the Mineral Information Institute, garnets are used “as an abrasive blasting material, for water filtration, in a process called water jet cutting, and to make abrasive powders.”

Additional U.S. legislation and regulations on jewelry can be found here.

For those of you whose birthstone is the garnet, I hope you enjoyed this post.  Happy (belated) birthday!  For those of you who are treasure hunters, happy hunting.

4 Comments

  1. Sandra Sawicki
    January 25, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks for all the fascinating information about garnets, my birthstone. When I was little, I thought garnets were so un-interesting, not like the fabulous sapphires or emeralds. But I was really wrong about this, and I am indebted to you for all the wonderful research.

  2. Nicola Jameson
    October 24, 2012 at 9:57 am

    A very good article. Garnets are one of the most under-rated gemstones, usually because they are associated with the dull, dark Pyrope garnets so often seen in estate jewelry. In actual fact garnets have one of the most sophisticated chemical and physical makeups of all gems. Being singly refractive, they also display a pure color unlike doubly refractive gems. One garnet type you don’t seem to have covered in your article is probably the most interesting of them all – the color change garnet. Being a singly refractive gem, it is outstanding that it can achieve such a complete color change. An interesting article on a new discovery of this rare gem here if anyone is interested in some further reading : http://www.lapigems.com/Articles/Color-Change-Garnet-From-Kenya.aspx

  3. bob
    January 8, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    Garnets are really cool!

  4. bob
    January 8, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    Garnet paper is favored by cabinmakers for finishing bare wood.Garnet sand is also used for water filtration media.

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