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January Birthstone

Safety in travel, victory in battle, protection from snakebites and loyalty in love - these are just a few of the meanings attributed to January's birthstone, the garnet. While it doesn't enjoy the same wealthy reputation as diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, the garnet is one of the most richly detailed stones when it comes to legends and myths.

The name of the stone, garnet, comes from the Latin word for pomegranate, whose glistening, jewel-like seeds the most common form of garnet resembles. Because of that association, garnets acquired many of the qualities and myths associated with the seeded fruit. Like the pomegranate, the garnet is said to confer fertility and bring righteousness and healing - making it the perfect stone to be given as an engagement gift. In fact, long before diamonds took that title, garnets were a traditional engagement stone.

Rich, deep red is the color most often associated with garnet despite the fact that garnets are found in a literal rainbow of colors. Red, orange, yellow, green, gold, purple - even blue, though you'll find that many references state there are no blue garnets. That's because until the discovery of Alexandrite garnet in Madagascar, there were no known blue garnets. The Madagascar garnets change color in different lights. Most commonly - thought that is a misnomer, for they are the most rare of garnets - they are a muddy green to grayish blue in afternoon sunlight. By candlelight or under incandescent light, though, their hue changes to a shimmering smoky blue. A true blue color-change garnet is valued at thousands of dollars per carat.

Throughout history, garnets have held a place in ritual symbolism. It is said that garnet was one of the twelve stones in Aaron's breastplate, representing the tribe of Judah, and that King Solomon wore garnet adornments when he went into battle. Noah chose a garnet to hang in the Ark, and it illuminated his way through the floods. It was perhaps this Biblical reference that made garnet the stone worn by travelers and soldiers to promise them a safe return home.

But even before Biblical times, garnets were worn and treasured. Garnet necklaces have been found in graves in Czechoslovakia dating back to the Bronze Age. Garnet stones have been buried with warriors and nobles in Ancient Egypt (3100 B.C.), Sumeria (2100 B.C.) and Sweden (2000 B.C.). Plentiful throughout the world, and easily found just beneath the earth's crust, garnets were worn as jewelry among the Aztec and Mayans, Native Americans, aboriginal Australians and Asians.

Beyond ornamentation, though, garnets were believed to have many uses. Noah was not the only historic figure to have used a garnet as illumination. It's said that garnets, which are often found along riverbanks after violent storms, are created by lightning, and that they hold a spark of captured lightning within their depths. Hold a garnet to the light, and it's easy to see where this belief sprang from - even uncut and unpolished, a gemstone quality garnet seems to have a heart of flame.

Garnets are also believed to have the power to staunch blood, to offer protection and healing from poisons and to purify the liver. Since ancient times, people have believed that garnets can help spark mental acuity and clarity, lighten the mood and bring peace and solace to the grieving. Over the years, garnets have acquired the meaning of fidelity, loyalty and love.

One use of garnets that is surprisingly at odds with the rest of its healing and enlightening reputation is the use to which it was put by Asiatic tribes. In 1892, the Hanza used bullets fashioned of garnet against British troops, believing that garnet would be more deadly than lead.

Garnets have been worn by royalty and peasants alike. Because they are so plentiful in the Earth's crust, small garnets are not prohibitively expensive - but their enduring beauty and hardness make them a gemstone fit for a king - or a queen. Both Queen Victoria and Mary Queen of Scots are said to have favored garnet jewelry during their reigns.

Chemically, garnets are not one stone, but an entire family of gems. There are six species of garnet - almandine (wine red), pyrope (brownish to orange red), spessartine (orange brown to golden brown - root beer color), andradite (yellowish brown to green), grossular (colorless to green, including yellow, brown and pink) and uvarovite (brilliant green). They all share a common cubic crystalline structure that gives them superior refractive qualities, making them brilliant, fiery stones.

Garnets are also among the hardest gemstones, measuring between 7.0 and 7.5 on the Mohs hardness scale. Beauty, variety, hardness, clarity and tradition - the versatile garnet is a fitting birthstone for the month of January, which represents both practical Capricorns and dreamy Aquarians.

January's birthstone is easily the most variable and versatile of all birthstones. While most think of garnets as a red stone, there are varieties of garnet in virtually every hue, including blue thanks to a relatively recent discovery of color-changing blue garnets in Madagascar. Garnets have been used in ornamentation since at least the time of the Egyptians.

Buying Garnets

The ideal color for garnet depends on its color - which may seem a bit circular. As with any gemstone, the most valued stones are those that are neither too dark or too light. Therefore, the most valued red garnet is a deep, rich wine red that is transparent enough to show the 'heart of fire' - the flashy sparkle for which garnets are known. Orange garnets should be pure, brilliant tangerine with no muddy brown or greenish undertones, and green garnets closer to grass green than olive green.

The blue color change garnets from Madagascar have the potential to become one of the most expensive varieties of gemstone in the world, priced at thousands of dollars per carat. Green garnets are generally relatively inexpensive, with the exception of tsavorite garnets and demantoids, which rival emeralds for color and clarity and can cost well over $1000 per carat. In general though, good quality garnets are affordable for nearly everyone, making them an excellent birthstone.

Demantoids are green garnets mined in Russia. They often have 'horsetail' inclusions, which, when well-defined and evenly included, add a stunning velvety texture to the fiery stone.

Madagascar garnets display a higher degree of 'pleochroism' - the tendency to change color in different lights - than alexandrite, which are known for their color change properties.

Garnet Care

With a hardness of 6 to 7 on the Mohs scale, and no known cleavages, garnets are hard, durable stones, though they are susceptible to chipping and cracking from hard blows.

You should take care to protect your garnet jewelry from knocks and chips by removing rings and pendants before doing any work which might put the stone in danger of being hit. In addition, chemicals from cosmetics, lotions and hairsprays can dull the shine, so leave the rings, earrings and necklaces off until after you're done with the makeup.

Storing Garnets

In your jewelry box, store garnet jewelry in its own compartment or in a cloth bag to prevent damage either to or from other pieces of jewelry. Garnet is not susceptible to color change from light or heat exposure, but care should be taken to avoid exposing it to other chemicals.

Cleaning Garnets

Clean occasionally with a soft, dry cloth. With the exception of the more expensive forms, garnet can be cleaned in an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner. Avoid exposing garnets to harsh chemicals and extreme temperatures, both of which can damage the gem.