Summary
Garnet symbolism is rich and varied. Cultures all over the world have prized this gemstone for its beautiful colors and durability. The traditional January birthstone has also inspired many legends and popular associations with love, friendship, light, and vitality.
Reading time: 9 min
heart-cut spessartine garnet and diamond pendant - garnet symbolism and legends

18k rose gold necklace with an 8.14-ct heart-cut spessartine garnet and 0.32-ct pear-cut diamond pendant. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and Auctionata Paddle 8 AG.

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.

Egyptian pectoral jewelry - garnet symbolism and legends

Found in the tomb of the Egyptian Princess Sithathoryunet, this pectoral jewelry piece consists of carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and garnet set in gold (4.5 x 8.2 cm). Middle Kingdom Egypt, ca. 1887-1878 BCE. Purchase, Rogers Fund and Henry Walters Gift, 1916. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domain.

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.

Roman brooch with garnet inlay - garnet symbolism and legends

Roman garment brooch, gold plating on silver with inlaid garnet, glass, and enamel, ca 430 CE. From the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Jdsteakley. Licensed under CC By-SA 3.0.

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 color, size, and shape.

What is a Carbuncle?

Although garnets can occur in almost any color, they’re popularly associated with the color 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 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.

Greek earrings, gold and carbuncles - garnet symbolism and legends

Gold earrings with carbuncles and pendants of birds, Late Classical Greece, 4th century BCE. Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1945. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domain. (Cropped to show detail).

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.

carbuncle ring (ruby) - garnet symbolism and legends

This Chinese carbuncle pendant features a ruby (红宝石), not a garnet. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and Bay Antiques Auction.

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.

garnets in graphite matrix, "dragon eyes" - garnet symbolism and legends

During the Middle Ages, some people believed dragons had eyes made of garnets. These translucent garnets are still attached to the graphite schist where they formed. When backlit by a flashlight, they look like “dragon eyes.” This specimen came from the Red Embers Mine in Erving, Massachusetts, USA. “Fiery Dragon Eyes (Red Embers Garnet),” photo by Mike Beauregard. Licensed under CC By 2.0.

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 a 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.

spessartite garnet - garnet symbolism and legends

A 5.26-ct spessartite garnet, “orange red to burning ember red” in color. © All That Glitters. Used with permission.

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 find but reject the stone “which would have dimmed all earthly things,” its brilliance faded.

The Great Carbuncle - garnet symbolism and legends

“The Great Carbuncle,” oil on canvas by William Sidney Goodwin (1833-1916). Southampton City Art Gallery. Photo by Janneman. Public Domain.

Garnets for Protection

The belief that garnets have the power to shield their wearers from harm is very widespread. Saxon and Celtic kings favored 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.

Saxon hilt with garnet inlay - garnet symbolism and legends

Anglo-Saxon sword hilt fitting, gold with garnet cloisonné inlay, ca. 8th century CE. Photo by portableantiques. Licensed under CC By 2.0.

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 were all well-known for wearing garnets as adornments on their garments.

Garnets, Blood, and Life Force

Since ancient times, garnet’s traditional red color 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.

garnet and diamond hearts - garnet symbolism and legends

Interlocking hearts in 14k yellow and white gold with Mozambique red garnets and diamonds. © CustomMade. Used with permission.

The Hunza warriors from Kashmir shot garnet pellets with bows and later guns, believing that the stones would inflict particularly bloody wounds.

spessartine garnet crystal, Pakistan - garnet symbolism and legends

Spessartine garnet crystal, 3.3 x 1.5 x 1.2 cm, Nagar, Hunza Valley, Gilgit District, Northern Areas, Pakistan. © Rob Lavinsky, www.iRocks.com. Used with permission.

Garnet’s color 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.

garnet intaglio, Hellenistic Egypt - garnet symbolism and legends

To ensure the safe return of her husband from battle, Queen Berenike II dedicated her hair to the gods. The constellation Berenice’s Hair, near Leo, commemorates this event. (Earlier in her life, she reputedly rode into a battle after the death of her father and defeated the enemy). Garnet intaglio of Berenike II in a gold ring setting, Ptolemaic Egypt, 246-222 BCE, from the collection of the Walters Art Museum. Photo licensed under CC By-SA 3.0.

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 color was believed to resemble wounds).

almandine pendant - garnet symbolism and legends

Silver pendant with almandine garnets and blue glass. The figure is a priest holding a cross. German work from the end of the 17th century. From the collection of the Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Helena Bonnevier. Licensed under CC By-SA 3.0.

Love and Friendship

With associations with the heart, blood, inner fire, and life force, garnets have long been considered symbols of love. Garnet symbolism also extends to friendship. However, these connections are surprisingly sinister.

Roman Egyptian gold and garnet snake ring - garnet symbolism and legends

The bodies of two snakes form the shank of this Egyptian gold ring with a cabochon-cut red garnet in the center. Roman period (30 BCE-323 CE). Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and TimeLine Auctions Ltd.

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 travelers 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).

Roman garnet ring stone with carving - garnet symbolism and legends

Pyrope garnet ring stone with an intaglio of a winged foot resting on a butterfly, 1.2 cm. Imperial Rome, ca. 1st-3rd century CE. Gift of John Taylor Johnston, 1881. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domain. (Cropped to show detail).

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.

antique Bohemian garnet earrings - garnet symbolism and legends

Antique Bohemian garnet earrings, ca. 1900. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and The Cleveland Auction Company.

Garnets maintained their popularity through Victorian times but fell out of fashion after the 1800s.

Victorian earrings - gold, pearls, and carbuncles - garnet symbolism and legends

Victorian 18K gold earrings with carbuncles (oval cabochon garnets) and seed pearls, ca. 1870. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and John Moran Auctioneers, Inc.

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.

garnet and lab-created emerald pendant - garnet symbolism and legends

Pendant with red garnet in a floating halo of lab-created emerald gems. © CustomMade. Used with permission.

Consumers aren’t just looking for classic red stones. Discovered in the 19th century, rare demantoid garnets, with their emerald-like green color, 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 colors — such as brown, purple, and pink — have also garnered interest as jewelry stones.

rose gold and spessartite garnet medallion - garnet symbolism and legends

Rose gold medallion pendant with an orange spessartite garnet above a phoenix. © CustomMade. Used with permission.

With iridescent, star, and color change varieties, the garnet group will fascinate jewelry enthusiasts and gem collectors alike.

You can find garnets to fit every budget — from low to astronomical. To learn more about garnet buying in general, read our buying guide. If you’re considering a garnet for an engagement ring, check out our engagement ring stone buying guide.

color change garnet - garnet symbolism and legends

This 5.03-ct, oval brilliant-cut, East African garnet changes color from a medium-dark purplish red in incandescent light (left) to an unusual purple with blue-violet highlights in daylight (right). © The Gem Trader. Used with permission.