I’m fascinated by the treasures that metal detectorists (if that’s a proper word) have found in recent years around the UK (see my previous post about the Staffordshire Hoard). So, I was interested to read the latest post on my sister-in-law’s blog about the Ring, a gold and sapphire ring found in a field near the Yorkshire village of Escrick in 2009. Experts now believe that the ring is older than first thought, dating it to the 5th or 6th century, and they also think it may have been belonged to royalty.
I started to change my mind when I visited Prague 12 years ago. The Czech Republic is rich in the familiar blood red variety of garnet known as pyrope (often referred to as Bohemian garnet). In the jewellery and antique shops of Prague I saw so many large, fine examples of these gemstones set into classical and contemporary style jewellery that I was forced to take notice. I didn’t succumb on that trip but I did come to appreciate the lustre of this fiery red stone.
What really made me change my mind about garnet (by which I really mean pyrope) was seeing the Anglo Saxon Staffordshire Hoard at the just weeks after it was discovered and brought up out of the ground. Many of the beautiful gold finds such as this sword hilt fitting were inlaid with pyrope which was used by the Anglo Saxons in jewellery, religious artefacts, such as crosses, and to decorate weaponry.
The Staffordshire Hoard examples, which include this beautiful sword pyramid, are work of very high quality and stunning in their detail; I now fully appreciate the beauty and impact of pyrope. The 7th century Anglo Saxon ship burial found at in Suffolk also contained fine gold and garnet fittings which can be seen at the British Museum in London.
Not just red
Like many people, I had always assumed that all garnets were red and it wasn’t until long after my return from Prague that I learned that garnet can be found in every colour except blue; the grossular variety appears in a wide range of colours, while demantoid, the most valuable variety, is emerald green. The iron and chromium content of pyrope are what give it its deep red hue. Unlike many gemstones, garnets are not artificially treated to enhance their colour.
The word ‘garnet’ is derived from the Latin ‘granatus’ meaning ‘seed-like’. Garnet has long been associated with pomegranates since the pyrope variety is similar in colour to pomegranate seeds. Traditionally, Bohemian garnets are set close together in clusters to ressemble the seeds.
The Garnet is also linked to fire and it was once believed that the gem had the power to light up the night sky. Travellers liked to carry a garnet with them as an amulet or talisman on their journeys in the belief that the stone would offer protection against danger. In the Far East garnets were used as missiles because it was thought the stone would cause mortal wounds.
Perhaps because of their clarity, durability and availability, garnets have been appreciated for thousands of years. The Eygptians, Romans and Anglo Saxons used garnets in jewellery and the gem’s popularity endured over the centuries, with pyrope jewellery becoming a ‘must-have’ fashion item in the 18th and 19th centuries; when the late Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis’ estate was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1996, a 19th century cabochon garnet flower brooch sold for $145,000 and a heart shaped garnet carbuncle ring sold for $33,350. Garnet jewellery is still popular and is available everywhere from high street jewellers to the jewellery TV channels.
If I were thinking of buying pryope, I’d be very tempted to revisit Prague as there’s probably no better place to find this rich red stone displayed in all its fiery glory.
For more information on garnets, check out the International Colored Gemstone Association.
Next month’s birthstone: Amethyst
81 gold and silver items recently found in the same field as the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, have been declared ‘Treasure’. The Anglo Saxon objects, dating from the seventh century, include a helmet check piece and cross-shaped mount, will be valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee at the British Museum at the end of March.
The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo Saxon gold ever to be found in England. The first find, in 2009, consisted of 3,900 gold items. Some of the gold in these pieces was traced to Istanbul in modern-day Turkey and the gems (garnets) to India, demonstrating that the Anglo Saxons were traders.
The original hoard was purchased for £3.3m and Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which jointly owns the hoard with the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, plans to start a fundraising campaign to buy the new items.
A selection of items from the original hoard can currently be viewed in Stoke Museum and at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I have seen the collection several times and it is beautiful. Many of the items are set with garnets and the quality of craftsmanship is stunning, particularly given that many of the pieces are very small.
Look out for more information on the Staffordshire hoard in future posts.