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Spessartite

"According to the Talmud, the only light which Noah had in the Ark was afforded by a carbuncle (Garnet)".
Marcell Nelson Smith, Diamonds, Pearls and Precious Stones (1913)

A mosaic of Noah in the Basilica di San Marco, Venice. In Judaism, a Garnet is said to have illuminated NoahÂ’s Ark

 


A mosaic of Noah in the Basilica di San Marco, Venice. In Judaism, a Garnet is said to have illuminated Noah's Ark
One of the rarest members of the Garnet family, Spessartite has only been around for less than 200 years. Despite this, when I think of the radiant Garnet that could have illuminated Noah's ark to salvation, the fiery oranges of Spessartite immediately come to mind.

Named after its original source in Spessart in the German state of Bavaria, Spessartite was discovered in the mid 19th century. Also known as Spessartine, it was subsequently also found in Virginia's Rutherford Mines. While Spessartite has been mined in Australia, Brazil, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Zambia, it is Namibia and Nigeria that really define this gemstone. If you've read my take on Rhodolite click here, you will already be familiar with the Garnet family's diversity. Coming in a range of colours, including blues, chocolates, greens, oranges, pinks, purples, reds and yellows, Garnets are a group of minerals possessing similar crystal structures, varying in composition. As each type has different colours and properties, Garnets can be potentially confusing for the beginner. To help, I've included a handy chart click here.

Spessartite & Diamond 9K Yellow Gold Ring

Spessartite & Diamond 9K Yellow
Gold Ring
 
Garnet's many myths frequently portray it as a symbol of light, faith, truth, chivalry, loyalty and honesty. For example, Garnet (carbuncle) was one of the gems in the 'breastplate of judgement' (Exodus 28:15-30), the impetus for birthstones in Western culture (click here for more), and Crusaders considered Garnet so symbolic of Christ's sacrifice that they set them into their armour for protection. In Islam, Garnets illuminate the fourth heaven, while for Norsemen they guide the way to Valhalla. One of my favourite Garnet stories is the Grimm's fairytale that tells of an old lady, who upon rescuing an injured bird was rewarded for her kindness with a Garnet that glowed, illuminating the night.
 
While still brilliant, this Nigerian Spessartite is almost pure red with a dark tone and strong saturation due to its higher iron content

 


While still brilliant, this Nigerian Spessartite is almost pure red with a dark tone and strong saturation due to its higher iron content
As 'self coloured' gemstones (click here for more), the manganese always present in Spessartite's crystal structure means that it is always going to be a shade of orange. But remember what I said click here about Garnets being a friendly family that like to mix and match in nature? When the iron of Almandine Garnet lends some of its flavour, deeper reds and reddish-browns also come into play. As a result, the colours typically seen in Spessartite are orange, deep reddish-orange, rich golden orange with red flashes, yellowish-orange and deep red. Sometimes, brownish 'dark chocolate' tints are also present, which causes Spessartite's burnt orange colours. As with all coloured gemstones, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While the more intense, vibrant reddish-oranges and 'classic' rich oranges typically command the highest prices, your preference should dictate your choice. Just always look for good brilliance, a characteristic of Spessartite due to its high refraction (click hear for more). This is important as Spessartite has the fifth highest refractive index, after Diamond, Sphene, Zircon and Demantoid (a variety of Andradite Garnet). Mandarin Garnet is a variety of Spessartite with a pure, almost neon, vivid mandarin colour, just like the fruit. The most valuable of all Spessartite, Mandarin Garnet was discovered in Kunene in northwest Namibia. Also known as 'Kunene Spessartine', Namibian Mandarin Garnet was first mined in 1991 and is typically differentiated from Spessartite from other origins by its inclusions and graining, giving it a 'sleepy' appearance. While some in the gem biz view Mandarin Garnet as exclusively Namibian, Marlene A. Prost, in her 'Life in Orange' article published in 'Coloured Stone' (March-April, 2002), said it is: "a term that today is often applied to all Spessartite, regardless of origin". In my experience, this is true. I'm not too puritanical about this, as long as the gem's colour matches its name, but fine Mandarin Spessartite with an authenticated Namibian origin will command a premium. Since 1994, Nigeria has become one of Spessartite's most important sources.

Although Spessartite is regarded as a Type II gemstone (occurring with some minor inclusions that may be eye-visible, click here for more), favour eye-clean gems (no visible inclusions when the gem is examined six inches from the naked eye), remembering that lighter coloured and larger examples, as well as Namibian Mandarin Garnet, may have more inclusions. During the middle ages, if your Garnet became less sparkly, trouble was on its way and in Spessartite this rings true; good cutting accentuates its innate brilliance. Once you've settled on a colour with good brilliance, look for a good shape and overall appearance. As production of fine examples from any locale is usually sporadic, the fiery oranges of Spessartite remain a rarity, whose purchase is the hallmark of a clever gem buyer.

Hessonite Garnet

Hessonite Garnet
A big hit with ancient Indians, Greeks and Romans, Hessonite is the orange version of Grossular Garnet (click here for more), Tsavorite being its green variety (click here for more). Hessonite comes in shades of orange, sometimes with hints of red and brown, resulting in this colour being aptly called the 'cinnamon stone'. Hessonite's entomology can confuse because the Greek 'esson' actually means 'inferior'. While softer than other Garnets, Hessonite is still a durable jewellery gemstone. In Vedic astrology, Hessonite is known by its Sanskrit name 'Gomedha' (cow urine), with Hessonite of this shade considered the most desirable for this purpose. As my experience with bovines doesn't go much further than a barbeque grill, we're going to have to take their word for it. But before you cringe at the comparison, remember cows are sacred animals for Hindus. According to Vedic tradition, setting Hessonite in gold is believed to result in a powerful double whammy, increasing both your happiness and lifespan. For me, the best Hessonite is an intense golden honey orange with good brilliance. A clean Hessonite is the exception rather than the rule, due to the prevalence of inclusions giving it a streaky, toffee-like look. Most Hessonite continues to be obtained from its classic source, Sri Lanka.

When I first came to Chanthaburi, Thailand, I was surprised at some of the colloquial terms some African rough dealers used to describe the different colours of Spessartite. Totally enchanted by the magic of gemstones, I was horrified (as you can imagine) to hear the terms Coke, Fanta and Red Soda (a Fanta variety marketed in Thailand) being casually used to describe raw crystals that would soon be faceted into beautiful, rare gemstones. Well they mightn't be very romantic, but years later I can see how apt these everyday terms are at communicating colour. We mightn't all think of the same thing when I say 'burnt orange', but a glass of Fanta with a splash of Coke quickly gets the message across, regardless of the language barrier.
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